Thursday, April 28, 2011


At the end of most books I read, I smile. Sometimes the book stays with me, sometimes not. A few tick me off, others barely register.
Yesterday I finished reading Water for Elephants. As I closed the book and looked around, I felt a sense of vertigo. It was as if I were being pulled from one world into another, duller place. While not a perfect book--what is?--it drew me in to a Depression-era circus and kept me there. That's a very rare thing.

It was a more common experience for me when I was a kid. Each book was a new experience, something I'd never read or thought of before. I was also more willing to let myself be drawn in.

There have been several times in my adult reading that I remember the feeling. Both The World According to Garp by John Irving and The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy had such strong pulls that I turned around and reread each one immediately after "The End." The Harry Potter books give that sense of vertigo, too.

So what is it about certain books that make the reader feel as if she has been transported somewhere else? I could answer with the usual: three-dimensional characters, great settings, a strong plot, excellent craftsmanship. But there are books with those things that don't have that same effect. I don't think you can quantify it or point to one thing that creates it.

But wouldn't it be nice if we could?

Any books that caused vertigo for you? Can you figure out what it was that affected you?

Monday, April 25, 2011

And Another Thing

I learned about writing from NaNoWriMo is

5) November is a lousy month to tackle this challenge.

The beginning of the holiday season is not a good time to try to produce 50,000 words in 30 days. Families tend to balk at the idea of you taking your turkey dinner into the writing room so you can get 500 more words. When your company has driven across two states in a snowstorm, they kinda want to see your face.

My suggestion is to move it to April, June or September. Whichever works best for you.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Different Kind of Media Bias?

I am a television junkie. It started at a young age, with my mother fueling my habit. We'd roll the television table around the corner and watch while we ate. When she bought a new set, the old one went in my bedroom. I fell asleep most night with it on.

No surprise that I grew up still loving television. And while I'll watch a not-so-great show if it's fun, my tastes have become a bit more discerning. There is a lot of good storytelling on TV these days. Sometimes what I see on the tube is better than what I see at the movies. There's more originality and risk-taking, especially on networks like BBC, HBO and Showtime. AMC and USA also produce a fair share of good programming.

Which leads me to The Killing on AMC. The review I heard on NPR described it as Twin Peaks meets 24 meets Murder One meets The X-Files. Okay, they had my attention.  Here is the blurb from AMC's website:

The Killing ties together three distinct stories around a single murder including the detectives assigned to the case, the victim's grieving family, and the suspects. Set in Seattle, the story also explores local politics as it follows politicians connected to the case. As the series unfolds, it becomes clear that there are no accidents; everyone has a secret, and while the characters think they've moved on, their past isn't done with them. 

 Cool, right?

Well, no.

I've watched four episodes now, and I don't see where all the love is coming from. Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, NPR, etc. all gave glowing reviews of this show. I will admit that the story line with the victim's grieving family is something I haven't seen handled in depth on television before. It's realistic and well-acted.

However, the rest of the show is one big cliche'. Let me list just a few:

-Cop gets handed a big case on her "last day" at work
-Cop also gets saddled with a new partner
-Said partner has just moved to homicide from vice, with all the twitchy suspect behaviors that an undercover vice cop can be expected to display
-Single mother (Cop) is resisting making commitment to "nice guy" 
-Politician can't trust people in his own camp
-Politician is sleeping with an aide

-It is hinted that politician's dead wife was a victim of violent crime
-Politician's campaign is linked to murder victim
-Victim was a good kid from wrong side of tracks
-Victim's ex-boyfriend is a bad kid with lots of money
-Victim's best friend didn't know what she was up to

And so on.

I've heard the lead, Mireille Enos, praised for her acting. Again, sorry, but all she does is chew gum and stare--at people, at evidence, at walls. It would fine if you could see any kind of emotion or even evidence of thinking going on behind those stares, but there isn't.

Why the big disconnect then between what the critics are all saying and what I think?

I could be totally off base. But there have been enough comments from others that I don't think I'm waaaay out there. I think that critics get in ruts just like the rest of us. They love a book from Author Q or a movie from Director J or Actor V. And maybe they like the next effort. And the next. And soon, anything that Author, Director, Actor or TV Network does is A-Okay by them. 

The opposite happens, too. Author P, Director I and Actor U can do nothing right. Maybe some of their efforts haven't produced the best results. But soon it doesn't matter. The best book ever written or the best movie ever made will be roundly trounced by these critics simply because it comes from these people.

Does this just mean that critics are human? Perhaps. But I find it disappointing when those critiques I've trusted steer me in the wrong direction. Does this mean that now I have to distrust everything they say?

Monday, April 18, 2011

What I Learned About Writing From

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

For those of you who may not have heard of NaNoWriMo, it is a writing event that takes place during the month of November. Participants sign up to write a "novel" in one month. The goal is complete 50,000 words in 30 days. Don't worry about doing the math--it comes out 1,666.6666 words a day. Now 50,000 words isn't quite a novel, but it's a great start.

The writer should be starting a new manuscript. Some preliminary work, such as character sketches and plot outlines are allowed. Then on November 1st, the writing begins.

I've participated three times, and learned some great lessons.

1) If at first you don't succeed . . .

My first time attempting NaNoWriMo, I failed. Epic fail. Life reared its head, and I didn't start until 5 days in. Then I froze. My total word count for the month was about 1,500 words.

The following year, I made it to 25,000 words. Better, but not the goal. Still, it was 25,000 more words than I had at the beginning of the month.

On my third try, I made my 50,000 words and a bit more. So satisfying.

Sticking with it paid off.

2) Writing every day is a great habit to have.

Once I got in the groove and writing every day became the norm, it was much easier to maintain. I got to a point of missing it if I skipped a day.

3) It doesn't have to be great writing.

Putting out a predetermined number of words a day means only that you write that number of words, it doesn't mean that the result is brilliant. And that's okay. Especially in a first draft.

Occasionally, though, there are flashes. Because when you're writing every day, in the groove, your brain works on the story even when you're not writing. So you don't have that boot up time. You sit down and start. And sometimes you surprise yourself.

4) They're more like guidelines really.

The rules say that you will start a brand spanking new project. But what if you have a work in progress? Will the NaNo Police come and wipe out your manuscript?

They didn't take mine away.

See, I had a WIP that was halfway there. I didn't want to abandon it to start the next manuscript. So I finished the WIP during the second week then started the next one. The world didn't end. I finished my first manuscript, and got a great start on the second.

It's your project. Make it work for you.

I highly recommend trying NaNoWriMo. If you've tried before, and didn't make it to 50,000, try again. Maybe make your personal goal to get 1,000 more words than you did the first time. I think you'll be glad you did.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Are You Building?

Former agent, Nathan Bransford, asked the question on his blog yesterday.

I have to admit to hearing crickets chirp for a while. What am I building? There are the stories and the worlds--real and imagined--that I am building. There are quilts and gloves and afghans. But what is there of any real importance that I am building.

Well, I'm building a life. With friendships, ideas, work and fun. I'm building what everybody builds (or, at least, I hope everyone is building a life). I'm probably not going to change the word in any significant way, but I hope I can make at least one person each day smile.

How about you? What are you building?

Monday, April 11, 2011

And Another Thing

I learned about writing from Top Chef is:

5) Use just the right amount of seasoning.

A lot of times the deciding factor in who has to "pack your knives and go" comes down to seasoning. Too much salt? You're out of there unless someone cooked something that was inedible. Produce a dish that's too bland? Another good way to get yourself a ticket home.

How many times have you read a story that has a good plot but leaves you flat? Chances are that the author under-seasoned. He didn't give enough description. Maybe the word choices could have been better. An adjective or two might have given it just a touch more flavor.

I've heard some authors say they want the reader to be able to supply the details so they are more involved.  Sorry, I think that's lazy. It's our world and our people, we need to make them real for the reader. Not the other way around.

Then there is the opposite extreme. Purple prose. The overly flowery, adjective-laden, adverb choked prose of an author who is just trying too hard.

I have a feeling I like description a bit more than most people do. I want to be able to picture where a story is taking place, what the characters look and act like, feel the sun on my face or the wind in my hair. So I have to make sure some of my first readers are those who like spare prose. I need to see if I've overwhelmed them or if they don't notice what I've done. Then my readers who are more like me have to weigh in on whether they felt the story was too bland.

How do you strike a balance when seasoning your writing? Do you prefer blander stories or ones with a little more flavor?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Maybe Not Just Flaws

Over on her blog, Jenny writes today about how character flaws create complications in P.G. Wodehouse's books. And that made me want to stop work and start in on letting my characters' flaws complicate things.

Since I couldn't really stop working, I let the idea percolate. I tried to think of other stories where character flaws complicated the story. I came up with quite a few. But something else dawned on me. All character traits can create complications, not just the flaws.

Spoiler warning if you watch Being Human and haven't seen Saturday night's episode.  

Sometimes the positive traits cause just as much havoc. Being Human (the BBC version) is gearing up for the season finale. The penultimate episode this season piled one complication on another. A lot of this stems from Annie deciding to help a police woman figure out who massacred a train car full of people. She likes the woman and wants her to succeed. She wants the families to have what little comfort they can get from knowing the murderer is behind bars. She wants to feel useful. The problem is that the murderer is someone close to her. His flaws created the initial problem. But it's Annie's good side that really complicates things for everyone in their group.

End of Spoiler Warning

Either way, it's a wonderful insight into how complications happen. And just another reason why Jenny's blog rocks. And Jenny, for that matter.

**Stay tuned for another thing I learned about writing from Top Chef.

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's The Story

A few weeks ago, I visited Disneyland in California with my nephew, his wife and their six-year-old daughter. Everywhere there are stories. Each ride is a mini-story. The performances are stories. Even the fireworks tell a story.

This is very different from the last time I was at Walt Disney World in Orlando. The fireworks existed as something to distract people standing in line. Now there is music and narration. The theme of the year--another recent addition--is "Let the Memories Begin." The fireworks story is about that theme. About the first time you came to a Disney theme park, the first Disney movie you saw, the first Disney television show you watched.

Okay, you could say it's a fifteen minute advertisement for their movies, etc., but it was so much fun to watch. As was the photo show on the side of "It's A Small World." Still photos and home movies from family visits to the park, interspersed with images from television and movies. We just happened upon it the first night and stood, transfixed as it played out.

In California Adventure they have "The World of Color" show. Dancing waters with images projected on them. Again, very much like the fireworks story and the photo show at "It's A Small World." Just done differently, and with breath-taking results.

Why were they so much fun? The story of Walt Disney and all he created is inspiring--whatever you, personally, think of the result. The story of the families who have made a visit to one of the parks their vacation of a lifetime is moving. The story of the memories we all Disney movies--our first, our favorite, or the one we watched and realized we'd grown up too much to enjoy it (I haven't reached this stage yet, thank goodness) are something we all share.

I think we writers tend to get too caught up in all the rules and advice. We must have a knock-out opening so the agent/editor/reader doesn't put the book down halfway through the first page. Every word has to count. Each scene has at least six purposes for being included. Dialogue must sparkle like we Turtle Waxed it.

But what we often lose in all of that is the story. What we're really doing is telling a story. And if the story is good enough, the readers really won't notice the other stuff. Because they'll be entertained.

In one of my previous critique groups, I'd often find myself saying to a talented but sometimes too clever for his own good writer," Just tell the damn story."

I think I'll apply that advice to my own writing. How about you? How important it story to you? Can a good story overcome otherwise flawed writing?

Monday, March 28, 2011

What I Learned About Writing From

Top Chef

In the original version of this television series, a group of working chefs compete for $100,000 to start a restaurant. The challenges vary, sometimes making them team up. Other times they compete individually. There have also been a few season of Top Chef Masters, involving celebrity chefs. This week is the finale of the first Top Chef All-Stars. These chefs are those who made it to the final rounds of their season, but didn’t win.

1)      Do your research ahead of time

As with all of these skill-based reality shows, the contestants are not allowed to use the equivalent of notes—no recipes on Top Chef, no patterns on Project Runway, etc. So the chefs have to know their stuff ahead of time.

It’s been surprising that so many don’t bother to learn what others consider “the basics.” Pastry seems to trip them up time and again. If you’re going to the final and it’s held in Singapore, perhaps you might want to familiarize yourself with some local cooking methods. 

I love doing research. Time slips away as I look up locations on the Internet. I have wasted a lot of time mid-project trying to find the perfect Italian surname for a character or a particular detail about how a locksmith might try to pick a lock. 

While I can’t foresee every thing I might need to know to write a particular book, I’ve learned to anticipate as much as possible, and do the work ahead of time. Time slips away as I look up locations on the Internet, as does money when I order several books on the same general topic.  But it’s better to use that time before I sit down to right.

How much research do you like to do for a project? When do you research?

2.      Don’t make gnocchi unless you’ve done it—successfully—a million times before

For whatever reason, the chefs love to make gnocchi to try to impress the judges. [Gnocchi is a kind of potato dumpling, but can be made with other starchy items, like pumpkin.]  So many have gone home because of over- or under-cooked gnocchi that I’ve lost count. You can see the doubt on the judges faces when a plate of the stuff is set in front of them.

The ones who do pull it off, however, will win whatever challenge they are in. Because it is so hard to make a good gnocchi, the judges reward those who actually can do it.

Take whatever unusual writing style or format or voice or point of view you can think of and substitute it for “gnocchi.” If you want to write in multiple points of view or use first person past perfect or write the story backwards, please make sure you can and have done it successfully before you send it off. And don’t just take the word of your best friend or mother.

Doing something different and difficult can be a way to make your story stand out.  But, please, make sure it’s in a good way. Are your critique group members taking big steaming forkfuls or are they pushing it around on the plate?

3.      Keep it fresh

“Oh look, Jaime’s making scallops. Again.”

In order to avoid potential gnocchi-style disaster, many of the chefs keep returning to a go-to ingredient or style. The judges notice this. Even if they’re the best damned scallops ever, the question becomes, “Can she cook anything else?”

If you write romance, that doesn’t mean you have to switch to horror. But if your heroine is always a raven-haired peasant girl and your hero is always a tawny-maned noble, perhaps it’s time to shake things up. Can you change the settings? The status of the characters? Maybe the time-frame.

A friend of mine writes mysteries, and she realized she was relying on strangling as the means of murder in both of her series. So now she’s shaking it up.

One of my critique group mentioned that all of my heroines have dark-blonde hair. Oops. 

How could you freshen up your stories without having to resort to trying gnocchi?

4.      The better the chef, the less back-stabbing takes place

Many of the chefs are known for trying to trip up other contestants. If allowed to pick a protein first, they’ll pick a favorite of someone else so that chef can’t use it. They’ll taste another’s dish and not say that it’s under-seasoned. Or they’ll try to get into someone else’s head and make her doubt what she’s cooking.

Top Chef Masters, however, was a revelation. They shared ingredients and tools, gave real feedback on dishes and rooted for each other. The final four drew names and had to shop for that other chef. Whatever ingredients were purchased had to be used in a dish that would get one of them eliminated. What did they do? Every one of the four bought items they knew the other chef liked to use. “It’s not a real win if I’m not competing against his best,” one of the chefs said.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy hanging out with other writers. For the most part, we encourage and support each other. That doesn’t happen very often elsewhere.

But I have seen those few writers who relish tearing down others. The critiques that, at first glance, seem to be trying to be helpful, but that simply undermine the writer’s confidence. The offhand remark about a character trait or plotline that cuts to the heart of someone who has put their work out there for the first time.

What’s your experience with other writers been? Are Masters or line cooks? How about you? Do your do your best to encourage while critiquing?

I don’t know that I always succeed, but I do try to emulate the Masters.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In Defense of "Was"

We've all heard it, right? Avoid all "to be" verbs. They weaken your writing. Find a stronger verb.

I've used Dickens as a defense. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity . . ." I've also heard that countered with, "But he wrote like 500 years ago." The person I was talking with wasn't all that bright, I admit.

Okay, here's one that's a little more current. From the best-seller "The Girl Who Played with Fire." We have learned that Lisbeth Salander has a twin sister. A twin sister quite different from Lisbeth, if only twenty minutes younger. Here is what Larsson writes:

"Lisbeth was first. Camilla was beautiful." 

Six words, two of them "was," that made me stop and say, "Wow." Didn't need much more than that to tell me volumes about these two.

And another thing about this, Larsson is not only using the dreaded to-be verb, but he's telling not showing. And it's better. He could have gone on for pages, and would have had to, to show us the same thing he tells us in six words.

I read a lot of criticisms about The Millenium Trilogy" that centered on Steig Larsson's story-telling style. That he tells too much, and this keeps the reader at arm's length. I must have short arms, because I've been right there with Blomqvist and Salander through two books, and I made sure I had the third on hand before I finished the second.

Your mileage may vary when it comes to the trilogy.  However, the next time you're struggling to get through a passage in a book (whether reading or writing), check to see if maybe that act of showing is what's slowing it down. Perhaps a line or two of telling could get the point across better and let you get on with the rest of the story.

Just saying.

Monday, March 21, 2011

And Another Thing

I learned about writing from Joss Whedon.

5)      People may assume things about you, based on your writing

If you didn’t get it from the previous points, I will say flat out, “I love Joss Whedon.”  His shows are fun and exciting to watch.

However . . .

He seems to repeat a certain pattern.  Namely, the teenage girl/young woman with superhuman strength.  Buffy as in The Vampire Slayer and River in Firefly can both take out a room full of men three times their size.  Echo in Dollhouse can be programmed to do just about anything.

Also, the vampire, Angel, has been cursed with a soul by a group of gypsies.  He will become evil again if he experiences a moment of true happiness.  Does he revert to evil when he saves the love of his life?  Nope.  When his son—a miracle he never thought possible—is born?  Nope.  He becomes evil after having sex with the girl he loves. 


In any case, Joss Whedon has given us a lot of wonderful characters and amazing stories.  If he never wrote another thing, he’d be well ahead of most of us.  And it would be a shame. 

I’d love to write one character who is as fully realized as most of Joss’.  Something to aspire to.

Monday, March 14, 2011

What I Learned About Writing From

Joss Whedon

If you don’t recognize the name, you will probably recognize his work.  Joss is the creative force behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Doll House, Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog and Firefly.  After that list, I may not have to say anything else.
But I will.

1)      Write strong characters

And I don’t just mean physically strong, although Joss does tend to like his characters to have some sort of physical strength.  Even the characters who don’t have a particular physical prowess have other strengths—intelligence, humor, tenacity, sympathy, healing, teaching.

Every protagonist in the Whedonverse is surrounded by a group of friends, or colleagues, or crew.  Each one of these supporting characters serves a solid purpose within the group.  Take any one away, and the group suffers.

I’m not there yet with my cast of characters.  But I’m trying.  Reruns of his shows help.

2)      Be original

Yes, there was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie before the series.  Joss Whedon was the writer, but not the director or producer.  The movie didn’t quite live up to what he had in mind, so he penned the series. 

Let’s look at a few of Joss’ creations:

--A teenage girl with superhuman strength, born to kill vampires and demons.
--A vampire who was cursed with a soul by gypsies.
--A girl whose mind is wiped clean and replaced with memories and personalities of another person
--A spaceship captain with criminal tendencies who ends up saving people
--A wannabe mad scientist who really just wants to get the girl (set to music)

One of these creations would be a coup for me, but Joss just keeps churning them out.  One great character after another.

3)      Well-placed humor can both relieve and heighten tension

Joss Whedon’s shows are full of action and suspense.  And humor.  Quirky, often unexpected humor.  Smart humor.  Things like "If every vampire who said he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock"

Then there are the quips mid-action.  After watching a few of the shows, the viewer realizes that a character who cracks a joke during a fight may just be the next victim. 

Do you use humor in your writing?  Is it used to relieve tension?  Build it? 

4)      Sometimes it’s okay if your protagonist isn’t very likeable

Buffy is a teenager.  A teenager with a huge responsibility.  Occasionally she gets a bit cranky.  Especially when her vampire boyfriend gets all evil and stuff.   Or if she’s trying to protect someone who won’t listen to her.

Angel can switch to the evil Angelus at time.  Even with friends all around him, he keeps secrets.  Secrets that can be dangerous to those friends.

Captain Mal is often sharp-tongued, saying mean hurtful things to his crew.

Yet, we love these characters, because they are flawed.  They work all the time to be better, do better.  But they aren’t perfect, and never will be.  Just like us.  

Are your characters too perfect?  What unexpected flaw could you give them?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

More Ch-ch-ch-changes

Saturday we held what I thought would be my last (and possibly THE last) CWC meeting.  I had announced a few weeks earlier that I'm still struggling with my writing and need to step away from even listening to critiques.  I've also cut back on reading agent blogs and those that dispense writing advice.  I haven't canceled my subscription to Writer's Digest, but I have dropped Poets & Writers for now, and WD is going on the shelf until I feel like it won't negatively influence me.

Since Mary and I carpool down to Pueblo, she wasn't sure she wanted to keep making the drive each month alone, especially since she's been struggling with her own writing and might not have anything to submit for a while.  Shane, too, hasn't been able to write, not so much out of writer's block, but because it's his first year as an English teacher and that pretty much eats up all his time.

That would leave just Ali and Jenny.  And Jenny has another critique group (she's fickle that way).  So, death to CWC, right?


I returned to the table after a bathroom break.  Conversation ceased, heads turned.  Oh-oh.  "What?" 

They decided, in the five minutes tops that I was gone, to change the format once again.  We'll still get together once a month for dinner--on Saturday, which works better for everyone--to talk.  About writing, other kinds of storytelling, what we're having trouble with, what's working, our lives in general.  Basically, whatever.  Sorta like the old Pirate days.  If someone wants to submit something, they can, of course.  And, if I still need to avoid all critiques, I can read it and mark it up (for some reason that doesn't bother me), drop Mary off with my feedback so they can discuss, and go somewhere for an hour to hang out or write.  Then I'll join the rest of the group for dinner.

Cool, huh?

Second transformation of the group in almost two and half years.  Most writing groups don't make it a year.  And big changes will kill even the strongest group.  But we seem to be the little Timex group.  We just keep ticking. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

And Another Thing

I learned about writing from  the Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries by Charlaine Harris/True Blood, based on the books.

6)      Keep telling your story

As I said in item 5, the makers of the True Blood, the television show, are not really following the books anymore.  There’s a vague resemblance in some places, but the shows are different.  So much so that a character who dies in the first book is still alive—and a fan favorite—in the Season Three finale.

Even with the changes, Charlaine Harris has continued to tell the stories her way.  The television show introduced Vampire Eric’s maker in Season One.  He is not the maker Harris gives the reader in Book Eight.  That takes dedication to your storytelling. 

Would you be able to continue writing a series the way you originally planned if a hugely popular television show based on your characters  had already given a different version of a situation?  Character?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Brought to you by the letter "F"

for Fleur.

Because Fleur just earned a book deal with Harper Children's.  She is the perfect example of how talent, hard work and perseverance can pay off.  And the ability to say, "This one's not working" and move on to the next project.

Read all about it at her blog.

Maybe there's a little lesson here. 

PS - I wanted to put an exclamation point after the tag, but Blogger wouldn't let me.  So here it is now, with friends!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, February 28, 2011

What I Learned About Writing From

The Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries by Charlaine Harris and True Blood, based on the books

1)      Give your protagonist a problem

Sookie is telepathic.  She hears everyone’s thoughts.  Almost all the time.  Which makes dating difficult since she knows exactly what her date is thinking about her, as well as all of his expectations.  Her gift has caused her to be labeled a freak in her small home town of Bon Temps, Louisiana. 

Groovy problem, right?  And it’s not her only one.  She needs her waitress job at the bar in order to help make ends meet at home, where she lives with her grandmother.  Her parents died in a car accident when she was little.  And her older brother’s a bit of a screw-up.

I’ve said it before, but my critique group always tells me that I’m too nice to my characters.  Well, Charlaine Harris has no problem beating up—sometimes quite literally—on her characters.  Especially Sookie.

2)      The bad guys should be dangerous

In the world of this series, vampires have recently come “out of the coffin.”  The reason?  A synthetic blood substitute, Tru Blood, developed by the Japanese means they no longer need to feed on humans. 

The problem is that Tru Blood isn’t exactly like human blood, so a lot of vampires aren’t about to make the switch.  And even if they are off the real thing, they are still incredibly strong and fast.  Some can fly.

Even when the bad guy isn’t a vampire, he (or she) is still a huge threatening presence.  Bon Temps has any number of really bad characters just waiting to do harm to our protagonist.  In addition to the vamps, there are werewolves, weretigers, werepanthers (you get the idea), evil fairies, ancient goddesses, religious fanatics, witches and just plain nasty human beings.

Wimpy bad guys don’t cut it, but I don’t want to make my antagonists look cartoonishly bad.  I don’t want a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash.  So how to find that happy medium between not-bad-at-all and over-the-top-evil? 

I once read that the perfect antagonist is the mirror opposite of your protagonist.  Think Harry Potter and Voldemort, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, Krystle and Alexis Carrington.

3)      Too many characters CAN be a problem.

I tend to like a fairly large cast of characters.  Maybe it’s because I’m from a large family.  Or it could be from reading a lot of Dickens as a kid.  Whatever the reason, I don’t get confused by a lot of characters in a book.

However…along about book six or seven in the series, Harris had populated Bon Temps and the surrounding area with more than a dozen named vampires, half a dozen or more important werewolves, at least three fairies, a handful of witches, a shapeshifter, a few weretigers, a whole town full of werepanthers, and about twenty humans. 

Even that wouldn’t have been too bad, except that she tried to fit everyone in for at least a mention.  The main storyline became diluted because of this. 

Early in the next book, Harris started eliminating some of the characters, not all of them violently.  It made for a tighter story.

I’m still working on making sure that all the characters in my books have good reasons for being there.   

4)      First person narrative has pros and cons

By sticking with Sookie, we get to know her.  She’s our window into Bon Temps.  We tend to feel about the other characters as she does.  She becomes us, or we become her. 

The flip side is that we can’t experience anything without Sookie.  The latest book, Dead in the Family, suffers because of this.  Vampire Eric is visited by his maker and a new “brother.”  A lot of really interesting stuff happens between the trio—off stage.  We learn about it just as Sookie does, while the story it told to her.  It loses a lot of the impact that actually being there would have given us.

I’ve used both first and third person narrative.  I’m not always clear why I’ve picked one over the other.  But I think it’s time to take a really good look at the story I want to tell before I make that decision.

5)      You need to let go when you sell the movie/television rights

About midway through each season of True Blood, the television series based on the Sookie Stackhouse books, my friend Jenny asks me what’s going to happen.  Even though I’ve read all the books, I have no idea at this point.  The first season stayed somewhat true to the main plot of Dead Until Dark, but there were lots of people and situations in the television version that weren’t in the book.  And the last episode veered in a very surprising way from the book.

Charlaine Harris is always positive about the series in the interviews I’ve read.  She acknowledges that television is a different medium from books and, therefore, requires a different take on storytelling.  Good for her.

I’ve also read interviews with authors who blast any adaptation of their work.  It tends to leave a bad taste in the mouth of this reader.  Yes, the story is your baby.  Yes, you came up with the idea in the first place.  Yes, the studio/director/producer/network must have liked what you wrote if they wanted to adapt it.  However, you sold the rights.  Period.

The lesson here?  Should I be lucky enough to pen something that someone wants to adapt, I had better consider how much it would bother me to have my baby undergo extensive cosmetic surgery.  Would the money being offered be enough for me to keep my mouth shut about any changes?  Could I smile and nod about the movie/television show/play while thinking about my bank account?

Could you?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reading Cozies

DB handed out cozies at the CWC meeting on Saturday.  I've read them all my life for a light change of pace.  Jenny did her own study of them a few months ago.  Mary seemed excited about reading one, or two even.  But I don't think Ali or Shane have ever read one.

Ali's already posted about her first impressions of the beginning of the book DB gave her.  It's not looking too promising.

It'll be interesting to see what everyone has to say next month.

Have you ever read a cozy mystery?  Did/do you like them?  What about reading other genres that aren't your normal go-to picks?  Were there any that pleasantly surprised you?  Or annoyed you?

Monday, February 14, 2011

And Another Thing I Learned About Writing

from The Da Vinci Code.

6)      People love conspiracy theories

From the assassination of a JFK to Roswell to 9/11 to Free Mason’s to whatever, there are always those who will question the “official version” of major events.  Sometimes these people are right and they expose a lie—think Watergate.  Sometimes they’re just crackpots. Sometimes we’ll never know  one way or the other.

Dan Brown uses questions that were already being asked by others—which led to a copyright lawsuit or two.  He uses them, though, in a novel.  This gives him the ability to say, “It’s just fiction.” 

Is the Catholic Church covering up the truth about Jesus Christ?  And what is that truth?   Was he simply a profit who caught the imagination of the masses?   Was he married and a father?  Is there an unbroken line of descendants who are aware of their heritage, but who keep it secret to keep from bringing down Christianity as we know it?  Is there a Priory of Sion, dedicated to protecting the secret of Christ’s bloodline? 

None of those things need to be true.  Just posing the questions raises controversy.  And controversy begets debate, or the modern day equivalent of debate—shouting at the top of one’s lungs.  Once that starts, interest is piqued and an increase in sales can follow.

I’m not proposing that everyone should make use of conspiracy theories in their books.  Nor that all books need to spark controversy.  But there should be something about them of interest to readers—even a niche market.  There should be something about the book that people love.

When I start writing, I don’t worry about who my market is.  That would paralyze me.   But as it’s nearing the final edits (maybe Draft 4 or 5), I will begin to think about who might want to read this particular book. 
What about your book will people love?  Is it funny?  Heart-warming?  Scary?  Romantic?  Thrilling?  Some combination? 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

When The Universe Conspires Against You

As you may know, CWC has not been able to meet since the beginning of December.  An unexpected death and various snow storms have caused delays that turned into outright cancellations.  We finally agreed on this Saturday, with a forecast for highs in the mid-50s and sunny skies.  And then one of our group got news of another friend's death.  It just seems like the Universe is trying to tell us something. 

Ali received a much more positive message the other day.  I've been getting some mixed signals myself.

This time we're sending a message back to the Universe:  We're meeting.  One of our number will be attending a funeral, and we'll have to figure out times to exchange submissions, critiques, etc. with her.  And while our thoughts with be with Mary, her family and their friends, we're going to go ahead and do this thing.

Maybe the Universe is just nudging us (and with something that big, a nudge can feel like an earthquake) to see if we're really serious about this CWC thing.  Because maybe if we're not, then we might not be serious about the writer thing.  What the Universe needs to know, however, is just how bloody serious we are.  So we're going to prove it.

Ever get the feeling that the Universe/events/gods/life was trying to tell you something?  What did you do with the message?

Monday, February 7, 2011

What I Learned About Writing From

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

I know that it’s almost required for writers to disparage Dan Brown.  Just some of the complaints about his writing are awkward sentence structure, telling instead of showing, playing fast and loose with history, physics, etc.  Yeah, maybe.  But we all know that many well-respected authors break the rules.  So what is it that bugs so many of us so much about Dan Brown?

Could it be his overwhelming success?  Probably not for everyone but, if we’re honest, for a lot of us.  Here we are slogging along, playing by all the rules and this guy sells a gazillion flawed books.

But a wise former agent, Nathan Bransford, said it best in one of his blog posts.  Writers who don’t take the opportunity to learn from financially successful books—even those they dislike—are doing themselves a disservice.  What follows is what I’ve learned about writing from The Da Vinci Code.

1)       Find a cool occupation for your protagonist
Robert Landon is a symbologist.  That was a new one on me.  But intriguing.  And an occupation I wish I’d known about before I registered for college.  To make a living out of studying and interpreting symbols?  How cool would that be?

Sometimes it seems that writers only find a handful of occupations worth writing about.  Medical and legal professionals are everywhere (try watching television for one evening without running into one, the other or both).  Teachers show up a lot, as do cops and private investigators (who could fall into the Legal category).  Then there are the stories about people in the entertainment industry—agents, artists, actors, writers etc.  Lots of stories about writers. 

While Langdon turns out to be employed as a college professor (teacher) and acts as a hyper-educated detective, it is the way he interprets symbols, both common and arcane, that propels the story forward.

I will be more likely to think twice before going with one of the overused professions for my protagonists in the future.  Does she have to be a medical doctor or could she be sociologist or a telemarketer? 

2)      Make the protagonist’s goal interesting

What could be more interesting than a search for the Holy Grail?  Langdon has to figure out not only where the Grail is hidden, but what exactly it is.  Is it a cup?  Was it used by Christ at the last supper or did it collect his blood at the crucifixion, or both?  Is it a person?  Could it be a descendant of Christ?  If it is, what would that mean for Christianity? 

One of my issues with my writing has been creating a well-defined tangible goal for my protagonist.  I won’t have anyone searching for the Holy Grail, but she needs to be after something that is every bit as important, if only to her.

3)      Keep the action moving forward

One of the reasons this book was on the best seller lists for so long is that it’s a page turner.  The reader wants to know what happens next.  Even when Landon and Sophie stop to analyze the clues or get information from another character, there is action in the background.  We know that Bezu Fache and Silas are hot on their heels.  Will our heroes figure it out in time?  Or will the bad guys catch up?  And when they do catch up, how will Langdon get away? 

Brown makes the figuring out interesting too.  This is where a lot of the “telling” comes in as Langdon explains what the symbols mean and why he’s interpreting them in the way he is.  But it’s interesting telling.  Do we really need a flashback to the 13th Century so he can show us?  Nah. 

Isn’t this what every writer aspires to?  We all want readers to be unable to put our books down, to have to read “just one more chapter” to find out what happens next. 

Even though I don’t write thrillers, I am trying to find ways to keep the reader wanting to see what’s next.  How do I up the stakes, heighten the tension, increase the conflict?

4)       Use interesting settings

The action starts in Paris.  Not just Paris, but the Louvre.   Langdon travels through France, London and Scotland.  We see the Louvre, Westminster Abbey and Roslyn Chapel in detail through Langdon’s eyes—a symbologist’s eyes. 

Would moving my characters around heighten the tension?  Would adding a famous landmark bring something different to the story?  I’m sure this idea wouldn’t work for every story, but it’s worth considering.  Remember, a rainy little town named Forks caught a lot of readers’ attentions without any landmarks at all.

5)       Make the antagonist a worthy opponent to the protagonist

“The Teacher” is every bit as smart as Langdon.  He’s devious, and he’s willing to kill to get what he wants.  That final trait is one that Langdon doesn’t appear to share.  It may make him a more likable good guy, but it puts him at a decided disadvantage.

The henchmen working for/with The Teacher are well drawn, too.  Especially Silas.   He’s an albino monk, strong physically.  He has absolute faith in God and The Teacher.  He also practices corporeal mortification or self-inflicted punishment.  So many things going on with Silas that he almost takes over the story.

I tend to be too nice to my protagonists.  And part of that is not making the antagonist enough of a threat.  By keeping antagonists like The Teacher in mind, I should be able to come up a worthy bad guy.

Whatever your opinion of The Da Vinci Code or Dan Brown, you can’t deny that a lot of people loved the book—and the movie that followed.  It’s hard to argue that all of the 80 million buyers are just stupid.  I know plenty of intelligent folks who enjoyed the book—heck, I couldn’t put the thing down even with the flaws I saw in it. 

The next time you encounter a best-seller that you feel “sucks,” keep reading.  And try to identify what made so many people enjoy it.  You just might be doing yourself a favor.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

And Another Thing I Learned About Writing From

The Pikes Peak Writers Conference

6)  Celebrate Any Request for "Pages"

But don't hang all your hopes on an offer from them.

So you get your manuscript ready, really ready. It’s revised and polished to a high gloss. You get a pitch session with Dream Agent. You practice your pitch for weeks. You sit down with said agent and pitch your little heart out. Then you sit back and wait.

And she says it sounds interesting. Asks a few questions. Then she hands you her card and asks you to send the first three chapters.

You float out of the pitch room, skip down the hall, rush to the bar to tell all your friends the good news. They help you celebrate and plan how you’ll spend your six-figure advance.

When you get home, you give your chapters another going over—or three. And you send them off to Dream Agent. You polish the rest of the manuscript again in anticipation of a request for a full and eventual offer of representation.

The email—or letter—arrives. Heart racing, you open it and read “Thank you for letting us read your work. However, Book Title isn’t a fit for us at this time.”  Despair.  What did you do wrong?

Probably nothing.  Some agents have a hard time saying "no" to a writer who--all eager-like--is sitting across a small table from them.  The pitch may have been good but, possibly, not completely representative of the actual manuscript.  Or the agent got back to the office and realized she had offered representation to another author with a similar story. 

So follow the steps above.  Polish the chapters to a gleam and send them off.  Then polish the rest of the manuscript to the same high gloss.  Then query other agents who represent what you write.  And start on that next book.  It'll keep you occupied while you wait for Dream Agent's reply, and you won't be hanging all your hopes on one response.

Registration is open for this year's conference.  We all know the state of the economy.  But if you can possibly afford it, go.  Attend the workshops, talk to other writers.  Try to sit at a table hosted by an agent, editor or author you admire.  And if your manuscript is ready, sign up for a pitch session.  Oh, and take the pitch practice workshop so you're ready. 

Most important of all--have fun.

Monday, January 31, 2011

What I Learned About Writing From

Pikes Peak Writers Conference

If you’re not familiar with the Pikes Peak Writers Conference (PPWC), let me give you the broad strokes. Pikes Peak Writers Conference has been held at the end of April in Colorado Springs, Colorado, since 1993. It was named one of the top ten writers conferences in the United States by Writers Digest Magazine. The conference is run by Pikes Peak Writers, a group of dedicated volunteers.

When I first attend, at the tenth anniversary conference, it consisted of two days of workshops and pitch appointments with either an agent or an editor. Friday afternoon, one could walk into a “read and critique” session and listen to a writer read a few pages and receive immediate feedback from an agent, editor or published author.

The conference has expanded to include workshops on Friday as well. And attendees may sign up for Thursday intensive workshops.

Following is a list of things I learned by attending several PPWCs over the years.

1) There are lots of other people out there like you.

I wrote a lot when I was in junior high and high school. Then “real life” interrupted that. I had gotten back into writing a couple years before my first PPWC. I joined a local writing group just a few months before the conference. So, I knew there were at least a dozen people in Colorado Springs who wrote.

Then I walked into the Marriott Hotel on the April Friday afternoon. There were writers everywhere—checking in, wandering the halls (some looking as dazed as I felt), sitting at the bar, and bravely reading their writing in front of an agent and a room full of people. Suddenly I became part of a much larger subculture. If I was crazy to be doing this, at least there were others as crazy as, if not more so, than I.

2) Writers can be incredibly generous with each other

Many of the faculty are authors—well-known and not so much—who shared their experiences and insights. They took the time to put together hour-long presentations and handouts to help other writers avoid some of the pitfalls the presenter had encountered.

The faculty were not the only generous authors. There were the strangers who invited me to sit with them at meals. The people who let me join in their conversations in the lobby between sessions and after the days events ended.

I left each night—I didn’t stay at the hotel that first year—feeling energized and knowing that I just might be able to do this thing.

3) No matter how much you know, there’s more to learn.

I love doing research. When I decided it was time to start writing again—seriously, I subscribed to Writers Digest and invested in a bunch of writing books. I read about plot, characterization, conflict, motivation, themes, dialogue. You name it, I had a book about it.

Even then, I felt there was probably a lot to learn from the workshops at my first PPWC. Sure enough, I absorbed a lot that weekend. There was a workshop on writing good query letters. Another on writing screenplays based on a two-hour movie broken into ten minute blocks.

By my third and fourth conferences, I was feeling pretty dang knowledgeable about the writing life. After all, I had a couple different first drafts under my belt. Even more books and magazines read. What else could there be to learn?

Well, how about developing a “bible” to manage a series. This is a notebook that contains information the author needs to keep track of. A map of the location, descriptions of characters, major events. Or how about the way real S.W.A.T. teams or canine units operate?

Every PPWC has taught me something new. They’ve also reminded me of things I might have once known, but forgot.

4) Be prepared.

I first learned that when I joined the Brownies in first grade. Who knew that it would help me at a writers conference mumble, mumble years later?

It took a year or two before I signed up for a Read and Critique session. A room full of strangers would be listening. A room full of strangers plus an agent. A big name agent. A big name agent from a prestigious agency.

Started a month or so before the conference, I polished and re-polished what I would be reading. I read aloud and timed myself. Then friends from my critique group helped by listening and offering advice. I was told accentuate certain phrases. Raise my voice here, lower it there. And remember to breathe.

When I started to read at PPWC, my hands shook the pages and my face went hot. But I was ready. My copy of the pages were in large print and marked up. “Hit this.” “Softer here.”

At the end of the reading I braced for the horrible feedback. But it didn’t come. She liked me. She really, really like me. I mean, she liked my writing.  And that felt great.  Even though she did not ask me to send her pages.  I wouldn't have been ready for that anyway.

5) When they say finished work, listen.

Agent/Editor pitch sessions are limited. Writers are cautioned to only sign up for a pitch session when they have a finished work. “Finished” does not mean a first draft. It certainly doesn’t mean a kinda cool idea for a book. It doesn’t even mean a good second draft.

A finished work is a manuscript that has been written and rewritten, probably several times. Eyes other than the writer’s have read it and offered feedback. Eyes that belong to people who are writers themselves. Or at least people who truly know about writing.

I decided that I’d pitch a book that was still mostly in the idea stage at my second PPWC. I figured it would be good practice for when it was finished because, of course, I didn’t think anyone would say they wanted to see it.

But he did ask for the first 100 pages. I didn’t have 30 pages. Did I rush home and knock out the rest of the book, polish it up and send the requested pages? No. Instead I froze up. I didn’t write much of anything for months.

Not everyone will have that reaction. But even if you run home and finish the manuscript, it will not be your best work. And if you don’t submit your best work, you won’t get very far. That means you’ll have wasted the agent’s time and, possibly, prevented a writer who was ready from getting one of the precious time slots.

Take a look at the PPWC brochure for 2011.  You can find it here at  It could just be the boost your writing needs.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

More of the Car Saga

Just a quick note to let you all know where we stand, car-wise:

--Test drove a Ford Fiesta, Ford Focus, 2 Toyota Corollas and 2 Hyundai Elantras on Saturday
--Made the mistake of falling in love with Elantra GLS
--Stormed out of dealership after being browbeaten by the manager
--Had to go back to dealership because they had my driver's license (still don't know why they needed or why I actually gave it to them in the first place)
--Spent 1/2 of Sunday with heating pad on neck and back, taking Ibuprofen.  Second 1/2 spent at brunch and Theatreworks laughing hysterically at Boeing Boeing.  I highly recommend it
--Finally found out what Farmers Insurance is giving me for my car--not as little as I feared, but not as much as I hoped
--Will be FedExed paperwork to sign today
--Check promised by "next week"
--Not 20 minutes later, the tow company called to arrange pickup for today (amazing how quickly they move when they're getting something)
--Participated in lively email exchange with a different Hyundai dealership in town.  They wanted to prove that "we're not all the same".  Unfortunately, I gave a firm dollar amount and have heard nothing from them since.
--Not really unhappy to have decided to go with the Focus.  It was my favorite until the Elantra.  Jenny took notes on my reaction to the cars and there were many many positives about the Focus.  Plus it's red.

I am still getting the financing in order, but will most likely go back to Ford tonight or tomorrow.  I think once it's settled, my neck and back should improve along with my mood.  And blood pressure should go back to normal range.  Or at least normal range for me.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Things on the car front are moving right along.  Here's where we are so far:

--Got rental car yesterday
--Looked at a few used cars at Carmax yesterday
--Got pre-approval for car loan from my bank
--Getting lots of suggestions from family, friends and coworkers
--Looked for title, couldn't find it
--Picked up replacement title today
--Scheduled car shopping outing for Saturday

The forward momentum is certainly helping my mood.  I still don't like the idea of having car payments again.  Car shopping, while I like looking at and test-driving cars, is not on my top ten list of fun things to do.  Especially when it's "under the gun" so to speak.  Only once in my life have I been able to look for a new car at my own pace.  It was such a luxury. 

But there's no getting around it.  I need a car.  An inexpensive car--both to buy and to own.  But I will get by, always with a little help from my friends--and a knowledgeable nephew.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Watch This Space

I was in a car accident on the way home last Monday night.  Since then, I've been concentrating on feeling better and dealing with the insurance companies--with the latter definitely hampering the former.  I have some pain and stiffness in my neck and upper back and my blood pressure is up.  Go figure. 

Anyway, I'm a bit preoccupied right now.  As soon as I know what's going to happen with the insurance companies, I'll be back to my regular blogging schedule.  For now, I recommend you check out the fabulous bloggers listed on the right hand side of the page.

Monday, January 10, 2011

And Another Thing

I learned about writing from Project Runway is

5)  Listen to your Tim Gunns.

People who regularly read my blog have heard this before from me, but it bears repeating.

Tim Gunn is the Chief Creative Officer for Liz Claiborne.  He also acts as a mentor for the designers on Project Runway.  He hands explains the challenges, accompanies the group to Mood Fabrics to buy supplies and advises them during the creative process.

Anyone who watches the show is familiar with Gunn's trademark stance of arms crossed, hand next to mouth followed by "I'm concerned."  Smart designers know to take a good look at what they are doing.  Especially if he is more specific.  "Do you think that's a little matronly?" was a frequent question last year.  The contestants asked that the most went home fairly early.

Sometimes it's a minor adjustment.  Others it takes starting over.  Not everyone listens to Mr. Gunn's suggestions.  The last strategy has worked on rare occasions.  Usually, the critiques of the judges echo what the mentor already said.

Do you listen to the Tim Gunn's in your life?  When your critique group makes suggestions, do you really listen?  Are you lucky enough to have a mentor who has "made it" in some capacity in the business?  A friend who is a published author?  An agent?  An editor?

I'm slowly learning how to take the advice my Tim Gunns give and "make it work"* for me.

*The parting advice Tim Gunn usually gives as he leaves the workroom.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

What I Learned About Writing From

Project Runway

I know.  I know.  It's not even about writing.  It's a reality show about fashion design.  I warned you in the first post that I'd be taking inspiration from lots of different places. 

The big thing is that it's about creating something.  Creating something that will help you achieve your dream.  I think that fits.

1)  Work to your strengths

Every week the contestants are given different challenges--make a prom dress to a sixteen-year-old's specifications, design an outfit using only items you can find at a hardware store, dress a drag queen or design the best resort outfit you can.  No matter how far out the challenge, the outcome is supposed to be a garment that could be sent down a fashion runway.

The designers who do well are those who know their strengths and weaknesses, and work to their strengths.  Especially on the wackier challenges. 

We all want to do it all well.  But let's face it, we all have something that stands out about our writing.  Why not play that up?  Yes, I work on strengthening my plotting, but I don't forget about character building and dialogue.

2)  But that doesn't mean you can't stretch

"I don't do menswear."  Or gowns, or resort wear, or whatever.  That doesn't cut it on the runway.  When you're given a challenge, you either perform or go home.

As writers, we're lucky.  We can write whatever we want.  No one is standing over us demanding, "Write a steampunk romance set in the old West."  At least, not once we get out of school.  But it certainly doesn't hurt to stretch ourselves a bit.

Can I add a little more humor to your stories?  More romance, mystery?  I've tried using a setting that I have to research, that I'm not familiar with.  I've found that I enjoy it.

3)  Don't repeat yourself

Too often, good designers get stuck.  The judges all loved the dress with the intricately folded fabric detail.  Then the next week the designer sends out a jacket with folded fabric, then slacks, etc.  It gets old fast.

We've all seen it happen with books.  Series can be especially susceptible.  I know I revisit certain themes, but I really try to beware of characters and situations becoming cookie cutter.

4)  You are responsible for your own work

As with most reality shows, there is a confessional type camera that films each individual talking behind the scenes.  Gloating, backstabbing or whining. 

Last season, one of the contestants complained to the camera.  "How do I get the judges to appreciate my brilliant designs?" 

Can you find the problem in that question?  She put all the responsibility on the judges.  What she should have asked was, "How can I improve my designs so I can impress the judges?". 

It's hard to accept criticism.  To hear that maybe we're lacking.  Much easier to blame the critic.  They just don't get it.  I'm trying very hard to listen to critics, really listen and determine how I can take that criticism and improve.