Bringing the monsters to life

I don’t normally think of myself as Dr. Frankenstein. Occasionally when my kids are running around the house buck-naked and screaming about poop, I do wonder what sort of monsters I’ve given life to. But usually I can blame my husband for those kinds of behaviors.

Being an author, you don’t always create monsters (depends on the genre) but you do create characters. And characters have to come to life on the page as clearly as the characters who live in your everyday life. They have to have quirks, likes, dislikes, and histories. They have to be fully realized in your mind or they won’t be fully realized on the page and in the reader’s mind.

So how do you do this?

One way is to plan. Create a chart, color-coded spreadsheet, list, rambling page of thoughts, or intricate and detailed mind map, whatever suits your style. Start brainstorming who your character is and what makes them unique. Interview your characters, and try to respond in their voice. Beth Barany at Writers Fun Zone has a useful list of essential elements to think about when creating characters.

If you’re not into planning, try imagining a character, then start writing. Put the character in a situation and go for it. Don’t over think, but let the character reveal themselves through your writing. You might end up with a hot mess, or you might discover a gem of a character you never knew was hiding inside your mind. Letting the story come through naturally can be a good alternative to overplanning, especially if you’re feeling stuck. And of course, you’ll always need to go back and revise once your characters have revealed themselves to make sure the story hangs together.

Whichever way you develop characters, make sure to give them a dark side. An Achille’s heel. What are they terrible at? What are their deepest, most intense fears? Then make your characters confront them. I know, it sounds so cruel. But a character without flaws is a Mary Sue–an idealized version of humanity, AKA uninteresting. Unless your readers are under the age of 5, they don’t want to read about Jane Doe’s fabulous, predictable life where everything always happens as it should. Great for her. Boring for us. There’s no story there.

Characters need to be tested by facing up to the bad/scary/hard things that happen to them. Readers need the excitement of living vicariously through someone else’s disaster while reclining comfortably on their couch eating chocolate bon bons. Unfair, but that’s how it goes.

Do you have any tips for developing character? Please share!

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Diversifying Your Portfolio: It’s not just for money anymore

So lately I’ve been thinking about diversifying my writing portfolio. (In other words, writing in more than one genre.)

Why on earth would I be thinking that, you ask? Here are three reasons.

Reason Number One: Because Paranormal is dead.* People gorged on Twilight and True Blood, and in the harsh light of the morning-after vampire hangover, have sworn off all creatures of the supernatural variety.

Except for zombies because apparently those are still cool and sexy? This still confuses me. Somebody please explain the appeal of the zombie.

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Um…yeah…

Reason Number Two: If you can write and sell romances to one niche audience, thrillers to another, and cozy mysteries to a third—then you are insanely talented and you should go do that. Even if you do end up going with a traditional publisher (full disclosure: I hope to be one of those people one day), you might end up working with several different-sized publishers for different books. You might release in e-book and/or paper book, depending on what makes sense for that book. You might traditionally publish your more market-friendly genres, and independently publish your collection of lighthouse-themed haiku. All options should be open.

Reason Number Three: Because I’m a human being. (Oops, was that a big reveal? I hope it wasn’t.) Being a human being (that sounds awkward, but you know what I mean), I like to read different kinds of books. For example, there’s teens versus government conspiracy a la Michele Gagnon, Kelley Armstrong and Malindo Lo. Humorous romantic mysteries like those by Gemma Halliday and Liliana Hart. I also enjoy a good true-life polar or mountain-climbing disaster.

The point here is that I read in multiple genres, and it makes sense that I might try writing in different genres too.

*By the way, I don’t believe in Reason Number One. The market is glutted, and publishers aren’t buying new paranormal, that’s true. But readers are out there and everything comes around again eventually.

What are your thoughts? Do you write in multiple genres? Let me know!

Top Three Best Moments of Oscars 2014

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should begin this post by admitting I have not seen any of the movies that won Oscars this year, or any that were nominated, or any that were not nominated. You might be wondering, then, why I sat through the Oscars in the first place. I wasn’t planning on watching, but people in my house had it on, so I joined in. Here are my top three best moments from this year’s Oscars.

Best Moment #3: Lupita Nyong’o’s Acceptance Speech

Lupita began her acceptance by acknowledging the suffering of the real-life person she played in the movie, thanked about a million people in the middle, and ended with affirming that everyone’s dreams matter. And she never even mentioned her future self.

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As heartfelt as her speech was, it’s worth remembering that Lupita Nyong’o is only the seventh black woman to win an Oscar. SEVENTH. Think about it, people. The Oscars have been happening for about a million years, and we only have seven black women winners. This win was a massive, well-deserved, life-changing step for Lupita and a minuscule, tiptoeing, have-to-look-really-closely-to-see-it shuffle in the general direction of equality for all humankind.

Best Moment #2: Robert De Niro’s Description of the Writer

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Here’s Nathan Bransford responding on behalf of writers everywhere, via Twitter:

#1 Best Moment of Oscar’s 2014: John Travolta Epically Failing to Pronounce Idina Menzel’s Name

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The best part about this moment? Within seconds of the flub, someone had created a Twitter handle for Adela Dazeem. By the time Idina/Adela finished her song, @AdelaDazeem had over 1,000 followers and was tweeting things like “THANK YOU JORN TROMOLTO!” She now has over 18K followers. When somebody gets to be funny and clever on a global scale, I say that is truly progress. And we should all thank the Academy for not putting John Travolta in charge of presenting the award to Lupita Nyong’o.

Did you watch the Oscars? What did you think? Which movies did you love? Let me know!

Positive Thinking Versus the Rejection E-mail

People say the biggest challenge when running a marathon is the mental block.  It’s that voice in your head. You know the one:

running_legs“You think you can run 26 miles? Are you crazy? Go back to the couch before your lungs explode and your legs fall off!”

I haven’t run a marathon, so I couldn’t say if it’s that or the whole running thing that makes it difficult. But I do believe that your attitude and mindset have a huge impact on whether you reach your goals.

I bring this up because I recently received my first rejection from an agent. Don’t worry—the drowning of sorrows in a vodka tonic or twelve is almost complete.  Just one or two more should do it….

Actually, I was not devastated by the rejection at all. The agent politely informed me that there is a glut of paranormal books out there right now and she didn’t think she personally could sell mine. Since I am writing in the paranormal genre, she is not the right agent for me. And that’s fine. In fact, I’m excited to have a rejection under my belt. Kind of gives me some street cred in the writing world. (Not quite the same kind of street cred as knocking over a liquor store, but it’s something.)

How do you deal with rejection? How do you overcome obstacles that stand between you and your goals? I’d love to hear from you!

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Tips For Writing a First Page that Rocks

In my last post, I described the Sisters in Crime meeting I went to where a panel of authors read and critiqued members’ first pages. Here’s some of their advice about how to make sure your first page hooks a reader or agent.

1. Less description, more emotion

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This tidbit came up more than once as the first page submissions were read out. That detailed description of the wallpaper in the heroine’s guest bedroom? No one cares. Readers are looking to connect with a character and a story. Descriptions should be sprinkled in at appropriate times.

2. Start in the middle of the action.

A recurring comment from the panel was some variation of, “If you cut out the first three paragraphs, you’ve got a great page.” Which the writer may hear as, “Just cut off your right ear, you don’t really need that.” Painful but true. Readers don’t need a lot of build-up to become engaged. In fact, with too much exposition, they get bored. Start in the action and save the explanations for later.

3. Readers should know early on what’s at stake.

If the main character finds herself on a speeding bus with a bomb on it, would she use the time to reminisce about moving to LA to pursue an acting career? This confuses readers because they don’t know what the story is about. Is it the bus or her quest to be an actress? On the first page, and the first chapter, stay focused on the conflict that drives the story.

4. Write for your audience.

People who don’t like epic fantasies may not choose to read your epic fantasy, even if your first page puts Tolkien to shame. That’s okay. Don’t try to write a book that will please everyone. Know your audience and write the best book you can for them.

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Some other fun tidbits about the market:

  • Vampires have been done (no, really) so if you’re writing a vamp novel, you need a twist that makes your story unique.
  • Thrillers set in the Middle East are still selling.
  • The Holy Grail is the YA novel with a male protagonist. Everyone wants to find it but it’s notoriously hard to hook teen boys into reading, so the standards are quite high.
  • YA novels rarely involve the protagonist’s family. They’re mostly about the character forging her own identity.

Other tips for hooking a reader/agent? Please share!

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop with Sisters in Crime, Northern California. It was called “Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down,” and members were invited to submit the first page of their manuscript to the panel of three distinguished authors. The page was read aloud and the panel gave their critique and opinion as to whether they would keep reading, and whether they thought an agent would keep reading as well.

The three panelists were Sophie Littlefield, Gillian Roberts and Keith Raffel. When the meeting started, I’ll be honest, I was a tad nervous. Okay, I was really nervous, and had been the entire drive up from Oakland to Marin. Yes, the critique would be anonymous, but it would also be very public.

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I spent too much time tamping down my Inner Critic as it tried to predict all the ways the panel could tear my writing apart, and ignored said Critic when it suggested I grab my page out of the purple box and run for Mt. Tamalpais with it. Instead, I sat in the second row and waited for the impending doom. At least if mine was one of the first to be critiqued, the ordeal would be over and I could relax.

Of course, mine wasn’t first. No, mine was second to last. The penultimate submission. Which gave the Inner Critic a good two hours to mess with my head.

criticize_bloggers    But that’s not actually what happened. (For one thing, my Inner Critic does not sound like Simon Cowell.)

In reality, I enjoyed the session. I loved hearing other people’s pages. This is a talented group of writers, and I heard many story beginnings I would’ve loved to read more of. The panelists were encouraging and constructive with their feedback. I told myself I wasn’t crazy to think I could do this writing thing. And I was right. The panel liked my first page.

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They suggested moving a line around and had some questions (when you’re writing about huldras, questions are inevitable), but the major feedback was that this fit right into the urban fantasy genre and that it worked. Hearing that felt great.

In my next post, I’ll share some of the most helpful advice I learned from the panelists about the market and what works in the opening page.

Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference: Survivor’s Report

I spent last weekend in Seattle at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference. A place where writers, agents, and editors come together in a gladiator-style fight to the death, and only the strongest writer, agent and editor survive. This trifecta then goes on to produce the greatest and best-selling story ever known to man and woman-kind.

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Given that this was my first experience with pitching my project to agents and editors, I expected something like the above. To my great relief and slight disappointment, it turns out that people who work in publishing are not half-clothed gladiators or hot ninjas. They’re people who love books and reading, and have devoted their lives to working with authors to create more books. Who knew?

I pitched to three agents and one editor, and all four requested that I send them pages. Which must mean I presented my idea in a clear and interesting way, and that I didn’t have coffee breath or the bottom of my skirt tucked into my underwear. So I’m super excited about that. I promise to keep you, my devoted fans, apprised of the situation as the rejection letters offers of representation come rolling in.

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Meeting other writers was also super fun. Winning an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite in a random drawing of Twitter users was amazing! Especially since I’m somewhat of a Twitter novice. Well, no more. I’ve learned that tweeting pays, and it pays in Kindles. So just try and keep me out of the Twitterverse from now on.

Were you at the PNWA conference? Did you also win a Kindle for tweeting? (Nope, that was just me! Thanks, PNWA!) What was it like for you?