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What to do post-conference…

NSOP BallroomWe all go to these conference events with high hopes and a nervous stomach – and some of these events can seem like a blur – so many people, so many sessions, so many – oh, good grief – so many drinks, so many really good tidbits that can help you with whatever problem or challenge you face. Afterwards, though, it can feel like a bit of a drag – the exhaustion, the overwhelming sense of what has happened, and what you have to do next to get where you want to go with your business, career, life, etc. Here are a couple of tips that I’ve developed over the last several conferences I’ve been fortunate enough to attend.

1) Rest, refresh, rehydrate.
We spend so much time darting from one session to another, or sipping cuppas in the breaks, or drinking at the social networking events, and cram so much into the limited time we have at these conferences, making sure we see/talk/pitch/network etc., that our bodies deplete in both energy and hydration. Get the rest, get refreshed, and rehydrate – that will put you in the best position to harness all that motivation, insight and advice you gained through your experience and direct it to something that is productive.
2) Email your new contacts.
Whether it was at the buffet, in the lift, or sitting next to each other in a workshop or discussion – hopefully you made at least a couple of new contacts. If you can remember their names, chances are you can find them on the internet. Send them a friendly wave through cyber-space (no stalking allowed). It doesn’t have to be much, something along the lines of ‘I really enjoyed meeting you…’ can make a major positive impact on the other person, but it also builds on the networking foundation you established at the conference. Follow them on Twitter, friend them on Facebook – if they’ll let you and don’t think you’re a stalker – these people could become your strongest friends, and your best communication network and brains trust. Also, keep an eye on any social media channel that discusses the event you attended, and feel free to add your comments to the conversation.
3) Go through your notes.
If necessary, type up all of those handwritten scribbles you call notes and try to put them into some sort of order. Go through the program and check over any notes you’ve written for the sessions you attended. Organise them into some sort of logical notebook – or perhaps just a point-form takeaway list. Not only is it neater and easier to find, but it has the added bonus of reaffirming those points you so wanted to remember.
4) Make plans.
So you’re all fired up – you’re rested, you’re refreshed, you’re rehydrated, you’ve established contact with new friends and you’ve organised your notes… and you’re itching to get back to work. What stood out from the conference that makes you want to DO? If you’re really lucky, there were a number of great take-aways from the conference. Make a list, prioritise, but write down your action plan. Those who write down their goals are 33% more likely to achieve them.
Do it the S.M.A.R.T. way – make your plans specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.
S.M.A.R.T. Goal Examples:Smart Goals
I will finish my 70,000 word manuscript by December and submit to XXX editor at XXX publisher.
I will tweet once a minimum of once every workday, and run a contest to build my following by an extra 10% by January 2015.
I will have my website up and running by November 1st in time for Nanowrimo.
You get the idea. Don’t forget to take stock in a few months to assess who you are doing with your goals.
5) Deliver on your promises.
If you made any kind of overture or promise – e.g.; yes, I will send you the partial manuscript, Madame Editor – then DO it. If you promised to send someone the notes you took of a particular session – then DO it. If you promised yourself to set up a savings account so that you can start your next year’s conference fund, then DO it. And – bless your soul – if you decided to volunteer for any role in the organisation, then DO it.

Attending a conference can be exhausting and exhilarating – and expensive. Make sure you get a return on your considerable investment by taking something away from the conference and USING it. Whether it’s a new way to approach a task, a new friend who is in exactly the same position as you, perhaps even a valuable mentor – these aren’t just social occasions, these are your opportunities to build the future you dream of.

Writing 101: CONFLICT LOCK

When creating character and story goals and conflict, there are generally two ways to go about it:

Protagonist and Antagonist  wants the same thing (hero/heroine vs villain).

Variation: Protagonists want the same thing (hero vs heroine).

Protagonist and Antagonist want different things, but by one accomplishing his/her goal, the other does not (ie: in direct conflict and at risk).

Variation: Protagonists want different things (hero vs heroine).

Conflict Lock

I wish I could claim this tool, but I’m not that clever. I first heard this from Fiona Lowe, who had been inspired by Jennifer Crusie, and I’ve also seen Bob Mayer explain it, so I will pass this fantastic nugget on to you, and urge you to visit the sites of those authors for more information on the craft of writing. Again, there are so many different ways a writer can reach their goals, I’m merely recommending what I’ve found has worked for me in the past…

The Conflict Lock is a diagram that can help you create sustainable conflict for your characters, and draft out your plotline. Or, if you’re struggling halfway through the book, it’s a good way to find out whether you have enough conflict for a novel – or a short story. Or if your conflict is weak, it is a way to help figure out how to bolster it.

Simply put, a conflict lock shows you whether one character’s goal BLOCKS another’s.

BASIC Conflict Lock

So, how do we create the conflict lock?

Step one: Draw four squares

Step two: Label one row for Protagonist (Hero and/or Heroine), and one row Antagonist (Hero or Villain)

Step three: Label first column ‘Goal’ and second column ‘Conflict’.

Step four: Write in your characters’ objective in the GOAL column, and what is preventing your character from achieving that goal in the CONFLICT column.

If your protagonist’s conflict is born from your antagonist’s pursuit of his/her goal, and vice versa, then you have a CONFLICT LOCK.

Here is an example from my first romantic suspense novel, VIPER’S KISS:

VK Conflict Lock

My heroine, Maggie Kincaid, is mistakenly identified as the lethal ‘Viper’, and finds herself on the run, determined to clear her name. My hero, Luke Fletcher, believes – along with everyone else – that she is the Viper, and is in pursuit.VipersKiss

For Maggie to remain free, Luke doesn’t achieve his goal. If Luke apprehends Maggie, she doesn’t achieve her goal.

If you draw a line from my heroine’s goal to my hero’s conflict, you will see that what she is doing is the source of his conflict. If you draw a line from my hero’s goal to my heroine’s conflict, you will see that what he is doing is the source her conflict.

CONFLICT LOCK.

In essence – one cannot achieve his/her goal because of the direct actions of the other.

Good luck and get writing!

 

 

 

Writing 101: Internal vs External Conflict

What is internal conflict? And what is external conflict? Why is conflict in storytelling so important? How do you create good conflict?

As covered in my previous post, Conflict Basics, there are two basic forms of conflict: INTERNAL and EXTERNAL.

Internal Conflict
Internal conflict is the struggle that occurs within your character, and is driven by your character.
They have a want, need or desire that arises from their experience (motivation), but in order to fulfil that want, need or desire they must face and conquer this inner demon. This is where they confront their self-concept and either grow or fall. Internal conflict is emotional, and it’s psychological.

This conflict is subjective; it belongs in the mind and heart of your subject (character).

External Conflict
External conflict is the struggle that occurs outside of your character – the external happenings that drive your character to act and react. In other words, external conflict is the plot. It’s the stuff that HAPPENS that makes your character DO.

This conflict is objective; it deals with things external to the mind and heart of your subject (character), for all to view.

Simply put:

Internal conflict stems from your character’s goal.

External conflict stems from your story goal.

Your character may have an external goal that can be on display for all to see, and then will have an inner, emotional goal that s/he may or may not be aware of. To really test your character, and to provide growth for your character as well as a compelling read for your reader, these goals provide the conflict.

For example:
External Goal: Heroine wants to find her father’s killer.
External Conflict: Killer doesn’t want to be found.

Internal Goal: Even if it’s just proving to herself, she wants to achieve something important.
Internal Conflict: She’s doesn’t feel good enough, smart enough, committed enough, to succeed.

Another way of phrasing it is subjective vs objective. Subjective is belonging to your subject, their inner emotional needs and fears. Objective is the object s/he is working toward, externally.

Why is conflict so important in a story? As mentioned before, without conflict, there is no story.
Conflict creates story, drama, tension, suspense.
Conflict makes things HAPPEN.
Conflict challenges your character and gives him/her the opportunity to grow and/or change.

GMC Chart
Goal, Motivation & ConflictDebra Dixon created a GMC chart in her must-have craft book; GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict. I’m merely paraphrasing here, but I thoroughly recommend you add it to your reference shelf. You can find this magnificent resource here.

Basic GMC Chart

In a previous post, the Four W’s of Character Development, we touched on the Who, What, Why and Why not. We’ve also looked at your character’s self-concept, as well as motivation. By combining all of these elements, we can start creating a solid Character Plan that can build a solid foundation for plotting your novel.

Looking at what we’ve learned so far, here is a basic Character Plan I use when I’m creating my character and starting the plotting process (we’ll add to this plan over the next few weeks, come back and visit for the full version).

Basic Character Plan
By defining your goals and motivation, uncovering your character and story conflict is organic and therefore believable – and sustainable. When you start plotting and planning your story (regardless of whether you’re a pantser, plotter, or plotster), if you have no idea what your character wants, neither will the reader.

By creating good conflict, a solid obstacle that prevents your character from getting what s/he wants, you create a story where the outcome is in doubt. Readers want to see your character work hard for his/her goal, and the stronger the conflict, the harder your character must fight. The harder your character fights, the more we, as readers, cheer them on. By giving your character good, solid conflict, you can create a character that develops a believable journey to their own pure essence (character arc) – but that’s another post!

Good luck and get writing!

Writing 101: Conflict Basics

What is internal conflict? What is external conflict? What other types of conflict are there? How do you set up conflict in a novel? How do you sustain that conflict?

If you’re just starting out with writing a book, conflict is one of the most important – and most challenging – elements to grasp.

I love conflict (only in my books, of course). I love the way it can put your character through the crucible, and have them emerge as a purer essence of themselves. I also love the potential for drama in humour that conflict can create. Conflict is such a critical aspect of writing, and it’s such a huge topic, I’ll cover it over a number of posts. This first post will look at conflict basics – what it is, and what it isn’t, and the two main categories that conflict falls under.

So…what is conflict?

Simply put, conflict is the struggle between two opposing forces.

Think…Two people applying for the same job…Cinderella and the stepsisters fighting over Prince Charming…Taylor and Brooke wanting Ridge…or cops and robbers – one wants to apprehend, the other wants freedom…

Conflict then becomes the basis of suspense: which force will triumph?

Without conflict…nothing happens. We can pick up our bat and ball and go home, because nothing is happening. No crimes or mysteries to solve. No relationships to resolve. Police are superfluous. So are superheroes (I know, gasp).

Conflict drives the plot of your story. In the beginning, something happens and creates a story question. For example, in a romance, boy meets girl. Story question – will they somehow get their Happily Ever After? Conflict: Boy doesn’t like girl. In a murder mystery, someone dies. Story question – will the detective figure out who the murderer is? Conflict: Murderer frames another suspect for the crime. In a fantasy, the Least-Likely-To-Succeed must complete their quest. Story question – will they find their Holy Grail or enable/disable the prophecy? Conflict: The evil witch is sending her minions out to destroy the Least-Likely-To-Succeed.The conflict is the issue that immediately prevents that story question from being answered within that first chapter – and keeps us reading.

Good conflict creates doubt in the reader. Doubt creates curiosity, and with that comes suspense. If the conflict is simple, if resolution is easily conceived and thus easily achieved, then it doesn’t really create doubt – and we stop reading. If it’s obvious from the start that Boy likes Girl and Girl likes Boy – well, they will get their Happily Ever After. If it’s obvious who the murderer is…well, then there’s no mystery. And if the evil witch and her minions are disorganised and ineffectual, than Least-Likely-To-Succeed…succeeds. End of quest.

Note: Conflict is not an argument. It’s not based on a misunderstanding that can be cleared up if only your characters would really talk: You ran away because you left the iron on, and not because you’re afraid to commit? Ooooh. Great. Let’s get married. (End of conflict, end of story.)

So…how can you create conflict?

Well, as stated earlier, conflict is the complication that prevents your character from obtaining what they want. It’s the begetting of trouble.

Conflict

For example: She wants children – but doesn’t have a suitable partner who can get her pregnant. No partner = conflict. Story question: Will she get her children? He wants the promotion – but so does she. Rivalry = conflict. Story question: will he get the promotion, or will she? Superhero wants to save the world – but supervillain wants to take over the world. Opposition = conflict. Will s/he save the world?

Over the next few posts, we’ll look at internal and external conflict, and the different variations of conflict, and ultimately how to use conflict with plotting.

For now, good luck and get writing!

Writing 101: Character Self-Concept

This post will be a short one, but I felt self-concept is a key building block when starting out with character arc. The self-concept of your character (this can also feed into character conflict, which will be covered in our next post) is how your character views him/herself.

How does s/he think of themselves? This is not who s/he is, or how others perceive them, but rather how s/he perceives him/herself… It’s not the whole truth, it’s their self truth.

Your heroine might be an exceptionally capable, efficient boss in a high-powered executive role – while she might actually see herself as the Plane Jane/Ugly Duckling who believes she can’t be successful in the looks department, so must work doubly hard to prove her smarts… or perhaps she feels her life is out of control, despite her control and efficiency that others see.

Or your hero might be an undercover agent who believes that as he has no personal connections and he’s always playing a ‘role’ that others don’t really see him for who he is, he’s invisible, and perhaps – less than human. Or that he’s just a mouse running in the wheel, with no real impact on the world around him – there’s always another criminal to take the place of the criminal he’s just caught, so he’s less than effective , while others may instead see the capability and justice he delivers, in the lives that he saves – or the lives that he ends.

With the self-concept comes great potential for growth (character arc). If our heroine feels out of control and less than attractive, one arc that shows real development would be her gaining that control, and realising her self-worth, that beauty is relative, that she doesn’t need to continually try to prove something, she can be content, proud, etc.

Our hero could realise that what he does is important, that he is important, that there is a ripple effect with his actions, and that people do see him, see what he does, and appreciate it – particularly those effected by the criminals he brings to justice.

With the self-concept comes great opportunity for challenge, for raising the stakes, for creating conflict. For example, our heroine who is extremely efficient, yet feels out of control; what’s the worst thing that could happen? She could actually find herself in a situation where she has no control whatsoever. And then? Perhaps she could actually lose control of herself – she could cry, she could rant, she could hit.. Things she would never have thought herself capable of, and possibly dreaded.

Our hero feels invisible and inconsequential – what’s the worst that could happen? What if his cover is blown, and the criminals see him for who he really is? Or that someone’s life depends on him and he has to strive, has to succeed, it becomes vital for him to be effective, to be powerful, and to have some impact with his actions.

For ways to outline and plot your character’s self-concept, feel free to download the Character Self-Concept Worksheet.

Someone once said – put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them. That’s what challenging your character’s self-concept is like – each time you throw that proverbial rock that hits the character at their core self-concept, they hurt, they heal, they recover – or they dodge. And maybe get hit by the next one. Either way, your character is forced to act and react, and consequently change. So, to add extra dimensions to your character, challenge his/her self-concept. Put them up that tree. Throw rocks. Then set fire to that tree – put your character through that emotional ringer.

Get writing, and good luck!

Writing 101: Motivating Your Character

Character motivation can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing. It’s where you get to ask, over and over, ‘but why?’ – and not get slapped for it. Creating motivation for your character is not only a great brainstorming exercise that encourages your muse, it’s also critical to developing a believable plot – or at least, a plot that your reader is prepared to believe. Without proper motivation that suspension of disbelief comes crashing down.

As mentioned in a previous post on the Four W’s of Character Development, motivation is a fundamental aspect of building your character. Motivation is what drives your character, it’s the engine that gets that vehicle moving.

Motivation gives your character credibility, depth, and will create that emotional empathy with your reader.

So, it’s important. Don’t scrimp on the motivation. When you establish clear motivation for your character, s/he can literally get away with murder, in the eyes of your reader.

One way to create motivation out of the ether for your character (and we’ve mentioned already that there are so many different methods writers can use, what I suggest here is merely what works for me) is to drill down to their core belief system, and their internal and external needs.

Harking back to my Year 8 social studies lessons, needs are what MUST be met in order for you to 1) survive, and 2) grow/develop. To explore it further, we’ll look briefly at the psychological theory put forward by Abraham Maslow in his paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation”.  Maslow’s theory suggests that the most basic of physiological needs must be met before one can focus on any higher level needs.

For example; a body needs food, water and shelter from the environment, and will pursue those needs until they are met. If they are not met, then the person may feel anxious, stressed – and deficient (hungry, thirsty, cold, wet, etc).

Once those basic needs are met, the individual can then focus on other needs, such as security – is the shelter safe from attack, are the members of my family/tribe/group safe, am I wounded/avoiding danger, etc.

At each stage when a need is met, the individual can build upon and lift their focus to the next stage of ‘need’, such as social, belonging, family, etc.

Maslow described our hierarchy of needs as:

Maslows Hierarchy of Needs

  1. Physiological: those things needed for our physical survival.
  2. Safety: those things needed to make us feel secure, safe, comfortable.
  3. Love/belonging: those things needed for us to feel engaged, accepted, loved, welcomed, etc.
  4. Esteem: those things that make us feel respected, recognised, worthy, and reflected in our self-respect and self-esteem.
  5. Self-actualisation: the realisation of our full potential, the drive for accomplishment and self-improvement/self-mastery.

But how do we relate this to our writing, and specifically, to our character?

We’re going to start with what our character NEEDS.

Motivation is WHY your character thinks, feels, acts and reacts the way s/he does.

I’m going to break motivation into two basic tracks –

  1. Deepest Desire
  2. Fundamental Fear

Deepest Desire

Primary Motivation: what does your character want, seek, crave, desire? These are the deepest, darkest seeds – qualities and requirements – that your character needs to feel safe, secure, comfortable, content and able to grow.

Nature vs Nurture: The age old argument; evolution versus environment. What has your character experienced – major life events, traumas, pivotal people, their culture – how have these aspects influenced the person your character has become? These aspects include; religious beliefs, language, family, education, ethnicity, socio-economic background, intellect, appearance, etc.

Self-Concept: How does your character see him/herself? What perception or view do they have of themselves as a self-truth? Note: this may not be the actual truth of their personality, but it is their SELF truth, what they truly believe is the case. We’ll cover Self-Concept in greater detail in a separate post. How does your character see him/herself, particularly in view of their deepest desire?

Make a list of twenty. Then make another list. You’ll find the first list are obvious needs and motivators. In the second list, there will be some things that may surprise you, intrigue you – and be a great, realistic, believable, compelling motivation for your character.

Newton’s Law of Motivation:

For every deep desire, there is an equal and opposite fundamental fear.

Each Deep Desire will have an equal, opposite and reactive Fundamental Fear if the desire (need) is not achieved.

Deep Desire vs Fundamental Fear

Fundamental Fear

Primary Motivation: what does your character dislike, fear, shun, hate, and is repulsed by? These are the deepest, darkest seeds – qualities and requirements – that your character fears and prevents him/her from feeling safe, secure, comfortable, content and able to grow.

Nature vs Nurture: The age old argument; evolution versus environment. What has your character experienced – major life events, traumas, pivotal people, their culture – how have these aspects influenced the person your character has become? These aspects include; religious beliefs, language, family, education, ethnicity, socio-economic background, intellect, appearance, etc.

Self-Concept: How does your character see him/herself? What perception or view do they have of themselves as a self-truth? Note: this may not be the actual truth of their personality, but it is their SELF truth, what they truly believe is the case. We’ll cover Self-Concept in greater detail in a separate post. How does your character see him/herself, particularly in view of their deepest desire?

Make a list for each track.  Make another list. Write as many deep desires and fundamental fears you can think of for your character, and select what works for you.

Then create the backstory for your character – how they developed these deepest desires and fundamental fears – you now have motivation that adds depth to your character – and possibly to your plot (but that’s another post!).

Feel free to download a Motivation Worksheet.

Good luck, and get writing!

Writing 101: Four W’s for Character Development

There are two drivers for novels; character and plot. Character-driven stories are those where the character’s actions and reactions drive the story forward and fuel turning points and happenings. Plot driven stories are where the focus is on the actual incidents and happenings that propel the story forward.  Creating dynamic characters using a basic practice is what we are focusing on with this article.Goal, Motivation & Conflict

The Four W’s

When it comes to fleshing out character, one of the basic ways to do it (and I still think it’s the best way) is to nut out the four W’s of that character. For a very good resource on character development, try Debra Dixon’s book on the craft of writing, Goal, Motivation & Conflict – it holds the best instructions and explanations for creating your characters. It’s well worth the investment!

Who?

Who is your character? Deciding on a name is often like sticking a note to a corkboard with a pin, it anchors the important information in place. Once you have a name, think of a descriptor that accurately portrays the traits and/or roles of this character. For example:   John McClane from Die Hard could be described as your rogue cop. William Wallace from Braveheart could be described as your determined warrior. Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada could be described as your disdainful autocrat. I’m going to create a character for the purpose of this post. His name is…Max. Max Brooks. Max Brooks, protective father.

What?

What does this character really want? World Peace? The antidote to the poison they’ve been injected with? That job promotion? A secure home for his/her child? Mr. Right? What objective is your character working toward? I usually break down the ‘what’ of a character even further into two categories – want and need.

  • Want:  The clear objective that your character defines on their own. Sometimes this is also called an external goal. It’s something tangible, and like any form of goal-setting in the ‘real’ world, there is success when the objective is reached, or failure if the objective is lost. It can be self-serving (job promotion/antidote), or self-sacrificing (world peace/safe home for family) – either way, it’s something that the character can get – or not.
  • Need: The deeper yearning that drives your character. Maybe it’s complicated, like finally getting the approval from your mother, or simple; proving your independence to yourself. Either way, these are emotional, subjective needs that will signal growth and development for your character if/when these needs are met.  You can have multiple wants and needs, but for today, I’m going to use just one. So, using my character Max as an example: Max wants: the antidote to a poison he’s been injected with. Max needs: To provide a safe, secure home life for his son

Why?

Why does your character want what s/he wants? This is the part that creates the most fun for me as a writer. This is where you create a backstory for your character, and where you give your character the motivation for their actions and reactions. Again, answering this question for both internal (subjective) and external (objective) goals creates believable motivation for those goals. It’s also where we channel Tom Jones – Why, Why, Why, Delilah…? Again, using our hero: Max wants an antidote to the poison – why? To save his own life. Why? His wife is dead, and he’s the only living relative for his son, Chad. He needs to be there for Chad. Why? Because he never had a father figure, growing up. His mother struggled to provide a safe roof over their heads, they ended up living on the street for a while, and he saw things, experienced things that he doesn’t want his son to see or experience. He wants to see his son grow into a healthy adult. He needs to save his own life, and in doing so he saves his son’s life.

See? It’s kind of like twenty questions, only you get to make up the answers. By continually asking why you create a more compelling, in-depth character.

Why not?

There has to be some problem or issue, some roadblock that prevents your character from getting what they want – otherwise your novel is a dead-boring read. If the outcome is a foregone conclusion, why bother reading the rest of the story. Boy meets girl, and they live happily ever after – zzzzzzz. Where’s the excitement? The tension? What makes the reader sit up at night and wonder – oh, heck, what’s going to happen next? Will they or won’t they? What is the complication, the conflict your character faces that stops them from achieving their goal? Again, conflict on an external (objective) and an internal (subjective) level adds not only dimension to your character, but suspense for the reader. Our hero, Max, can’t get the antidote because the person who injected him with the poison has it, and has now disappeared. Yikes! By not getting the antidote and saving his own life, his inner need to provide a safe, secure home for his son will not be met. He’ll die…or will he?

We’ve also introduced high stakes – life or death… but we’ll cover stakes (and how to raise them) in a later post.

So, in a nutshell:

Who is your character, what does s/he want, why does s/he want that, and why doesn’t s/he achieve that right now?

Four Ws

We’ll be covering these elements in greater detail over the coming weeks. In the meantime, good luck and get writing!

Book Titles – A.K.A. The Kevin Bacon Book Effect

How do you come up with a book title?

Well, as an author – I don’t. When I write my books, I use a ‘working title’ – so that I can refer to it as something instead of just ‘Book X’. It’s a little like naming a baby – and many writers will tell you they consider their various writing projects as just that – their babies, and they’ll take just as much care and effort as they would with naming a child.

I’ll spend some time trying to think up a title that is relevant to the story, that could possibly be seen in the bookstore and not cause me considerable embarrassment – and then I bin all those and try to look at my book as a publisher would – a book that will hopefully attract readers. Once the book is completed I send it to my editor.

The usual response is: Love the book, but we’ll need to change the title.

Ugh.

There could be a number of reasons for this outcome. There may be another book coming out within a close period of time with the same or similar title…or there may be something that’s considered ‘sensitive’ in the title…or, it might be really hard to get a cover that would suit THAT title…or the title I had could quite simply suck.

Most publishers will have an idea of what would appeal to a reader – or what could repel them. I know of one that has a list of key words of what could/should be used to encourage sales – and what should not appear on a cover. And that’s the basis of a title – something that brilliantly, effortlessly encapsulates the tone and feel of your story, that will make readers pause, perhaps pick the book up off the shelf (or more than likely, click on the thumbnail cover image) to read more, and then to hopefully (fingers crossed, praying fervently) buy.

Then there are those book titles that you wish you’d thought of, that bring forth an immediate reaction – perhaps it reminds you of an experience, or it may contain one of those mysterious key words that make you reach for the wallet as you heed that novel’s siren call.

Recently, I’ve had such an experience – and it was based purely on the TITLE. I’m a sucker for 80’s movies and T.V. shows – The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Magnum P.I., and (of course) MacGyver. I remember watching all of these, dancing to the soundtracks (I kid you not, I had the themes for both Magnum P.I. and MacGyver on cassette tape, and no, I’m not THAT old.)

I particularly remember singing into hairbrushes and choreographing dance moves with my sisters along to the songs from the movie Footloose. Uh-huh. You know what I’m talking about. Kevin Bacon. Who hasn’t parodied that scene with the disjointed bopping along a hall wearing earphones, regardless if it was intentional or you were just uncool and uncoordinated (mind you, the fact that Kevin Bacon did it implies an inherent cool factor).

HOFAHcoverSo when I saw the title for this book come up, I had to have it. Yes. I want a book, purely based on the title. Because it made me remember great times with my sisters, sizzling hot summers, rocking tunes, fun movies, and if I grab this book, it’s like grabbing on to those memories. And Kevin Bacon (although I’m not allowed to grab on to Mr. Bacon). I call it The Kevin Bacon Book Effect. I’m making a buying decision based purely upon the fact that Kevin Bacon made me do it. And here’s the kicker – it’s not even released yet, but I can pre-order – and so can you!

Will Kevin Bacon make you do it, too?

For those who haven’t seen the movie, or fans who have and like to get their Bacon bits, enjoy:

 

For those who enjoy the music, and maybe some hot superheroes, too, enjoy:

 

Tell me: what is your FAVE Kevin Bacon movie/show/moment?

Writing A Book Is Like Soccer

I do not play soccer. In my family, that’s not just unusual, it’s almost a crime, and spawns many a long conversation on the supposed merits of the game at family gatherings.

There is something about the thrill of the game, the smell of the fresh air, the warmth of the sun on my head that I’m just not really enamoured with. Maybe because it’s a winter sport and I’m freezing my tush off watching kids run around a muddy pitch – then have to wash muddy clothes. Or maybe because ‘they’ schedule games close enough to sparrow’s fart on a Saturday morning when most folks would prefer to be reading the paper over a leisurely breakfast. Maybe.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not opposed to the game, or any sport. I think team sports are important, fitness is important, developing coordination skills is important. I enjoy watching my kids’ efforts, I enjoy cheering them on, regardless of who scores, and I love that they develop resilience. I occasionally kick a ball around, an activity that is both enjoyable and satisfyingly destructive if the wrong window gets in the way. But perhaps because I attend so many games and watch them with an enquiring eye, I’ve learned something.

Soccer is not so different from writing a book.

Why do people play any game? It comes down to the thrill of the competition, of pitting oneself against the odds to triumph, and the satisfaction of knowing you rule the soccer pitch, if only for one Saturday morning. There are the obvious benefits – fitness, hand-eye coordination, and the in-your-face fist pump when you score that goal (we’ll call this external motivation).

Then there are the less obvious benefits, the communication one learns and shares with playing in a team, working together, learning to offer assistance and accept aid, as well as the confidence and satisfaction one gets from being active. There is the joy of winning and the crushing disappointment of losing. We’ll call this internal motivation.

There may be other factors at play, also – your opposing team member may be the bully or ‘ace’ student at school and you finally have a chance to show them what’s what… Or maybe you do this because your father is a massive Bend It Like Beckham fan and you don’t want to disappoint him, or your friend does it, and it’s a way to get out of the house and hang with your mates, thus avoiding chores… either way, this motivation contributes to backstory, and having a compelling and relevant backstory makes any book interesting to read. Just like soccer, though, when information emerges over the course of a season, so too must backstory be threaded through the course of a novel, and not in one info dump (otherwise you’re that kid – or parent – on the sideline that everyone avoids talking to).

In a game of soccer, you have two opposing forces (teams). In writing a book, you generally have at least two opposing forces (a protagonist and an antagonist, or for a romance, your hero and heroine may be your opposing forces).

Either way, that’s conflict.

Each side has a clear objective. In soccer, the objective is to score a goal, and hopefully prevent the other team from scoring a goal. In writing, your character/s must have a clear goal, and in a good, compelling story, those goals will also be counter-productive.

When you have counter-productive goals that work directly against each other, that’s GOOD, STRONG conflict.

In reaching your clearly stated objective in soccer, you may run into another player (literally). In writing, your character must run into obstacles. For a number of reasons:

• Nobody wants to watch a boring, one-sided game, and nobody wants to read a boring, obvious book.

• When you really have to struggle to achieve that goal, victory so much sweeter and exhilarating.

• The more your character struggles, the more your sideline supporters (readers) cheer on that character.

• The more your character blocks or is blocked by an opponent, the more tense the game becomes.

In a soccer game, the ball is kicked back and forth, changing direction with a calculated strike or a careless bump. Just like the soccer ball, your plot bounces from one direction to another, based on the actions of your characters. Without this constant movement, or plot direction, the game is over, and spectators go home.

This constant movement of the ball creates tension in the spectator as well as the player – will they score this time? Will it get near the goal posts? Will that kid with the bleeding nose stop the ball with his face again?  In writing, the to-ing and fro-ing creates tension in the reader, as well as the character. And just like in a story, when one goal is scored, either by one team or the other, it raises the stakes – will the other team come back and equal the score, or possibly win? What is going to happen next? How will this game end?

And as with any book, in soccer there are peaks and lulls. Tension ramps up before a goal – and regardless of the resulting mini-climax, there is always the decline in tension, only to be ramped up again at the next goal opportunity, and then the next. Also, tension ramps up with any clash or conflict, until the ball is kicked out of that tussle and the immediate conflict is over – until the next time.

The entire team are your supporting characters, each acting independently, with consequences for each action. Each character has virtues and flaws, and these traits can contribute to conflict between characters on the same team – he’s a ball hog and won’t pass, or she doesn’t want to get hurt and won’t fully commit to a hustle. If you’re lucky, they’ll eventually get their act together and work cohesively in accomplishing that goal. And if you’re not lucky – well, I guess you’re not writing a Happy Ever After.

Your Goalie can be your hero – and your villain, depending on your perspective. If s/he is on your team, and they block a goal – Hero! If you’re on the other team – villain, and vice versa when the roles are reversed. Each team/character has an entrenched view that is constantly under challenge, and with each practice, each opportunity to develop that skill, there is character growth. Each team member has an opponent – this creates balance on the field, and good, strong competition. Just as your hero must have that opponent that challenges him/her.

And like soccer, it isn’t over until that whistle blows – there is always the chance that things can get better – or worse.

And when the game is over, hopefully those supporters will happily come back for your next book.

Pitching a Homer – Or How to Pitch Your Novel

Okay, I’m lousy at baseball-speak, but the basis for this article is how to pitch to an editor or agent – in a conference scenario.

We are in the peak conference season – at least for romance writers. RWAmerica hold their annual conference in late July, RWAustralia hold their conference mid-August, and RWNew Zealand hold their annual conference mid-late August.

And at each conference there is the opportunity for brave souls to present their treasured work to an agent or editor, in the hopes that said agent/editor will recognise the gem for what it is, and whip out a chequebook and a fill-in-the-blanks contract.

Well, okay, maybe that’s more my fantasy than fact, but that’s what we writers hope for, yes? That the agent/editor love the pitch enough to ask for a partial manuscript – or a full (!) – and then read it and love it and want it.

When I first heard of pitching at conferences, it reminded me of a party where some kid (still so traumatised can’t remember his name) walked in on me in the bathroom at the grand old age of 5, and then called all the kids attending the party to come and gawk. And laugh. Ex-crooooootiating humiliation. And that’s how I viewed pitching. Present your treasure and hope they won’t laugh you out of the ballpark.

I did realise the benefit in pitching, though. If the agent/editor does request your work, your submission is slightly fast-tracked. While it’s not like having a police escort, with flashing lights and sirens heralding the arrival of your manuscript on to the agent/editor’s lap – it’s more the overtaking lane approach. Your work will be read, more than likely sooner rather than later, and if you phrase your cover letter properly, you’ll have a frame of reference – they’ve met you, and might remember you. Maybe. But this isn’t about the submission. This is about what happens BEFORE the submission.

When I decided to pitch my first novel, I researched, well, how to pitch a novel. And couldn’t really find that much practical, useful information. What am I supposed to do or say? Present them with a box of chocolates and tell the editor/agent how much I LOVE their work and how I want to work with them? Answer: No. Not even close.

Think of pitching like a job interview – yes, another ex-crooooootiating experience. You are approaching an industry professional, and you’re talking about your business, which you hope to make their business.

Some job interview tips work well for the pitch situation:

Be presentable.

Yes, all us writers are charmingly eccentric in our own special, creative way, but we do want to be taken as a serious business proposition, so make that good first impression. There is truth to the point that it’s the material that counts, but you really want the editor to be focused on the story you’re sharing with them, and not be distracted by the tufts of hair you forgot to brush, or the jewellery that flashes and jingles with each movement you make, or that the crystal you use for deodorant has… failed.

Be prepared.

Know your book. Most editors and agents request only pitches on works that are completed. This is to show that you can actually finish the work, and that it’s not just one of fifteen partial manuscripts you have tucked in your drawer. So, if it’s not finished, then at least know how it’s going to end up. Focus on the Four W’s: Who, What, Why and Why not?
Who are your characters? What does s/he want? Why does s/he want THAT? Why doesn’t s/he have it/get it?

Don’t lose the plot.

Not only will you need to know the bare bones of your story, but you’ll need to tell them some of the key turning points of the plot, the black moment, the climax and the resolution. What is the conflict? Particularly, can this conflict be sustained throughout the book? You need to know your plot inside out and upside down, so that you can explain it to the editor/agent – nobody else knows it better than you. If you’re looking for a novel pitching template, you can find a rough outline of one here.

Theme

Sometimes editors and agents might ask – ‘what is the theme of your novel’. Obviously it pays to have this answer ready. The theme of your story is the moral lesson that underpins your plot. It might be revenge, forgiveness, good vs evil, coming of age, etc. It’s like a smelting process for your book, boiling it down, reducing the elements until you have the pure essence of your book.

Have a backup.

We all have an attack of the nerves. Even though you’ve rehearsed it until your friends/family/partner/children/pet dog have learned to hide from you on sight, sometimes the reassurance of having your notes on cards can be all the backup you need to deliver a home run. Even if you never refer to them, it’s handy to have them with you. Just in case – but list it in point form. Don’t read your entire pitch from the card to the editor/agent.

Present with confidence.

For most of us, this will be our first meeting with our preferred editor/agent, so it’s important to make that good impression. Smile and greet your ‘pitchee’, and shake his/her hand. Either clasp your hands in your lap, or on the table (or around your little stack of reminder notecards), so that you don’t fidget. Sit on your hands, if you have to. Make eye contact – this is essential to form a connection and a memory of the event for the pitchee. Conduct yourself with confidence – even if it’s just an act and you’re shaking and feel like you’re going to throw up, present yourself with confidence. You’re looking good, you’re a professional meeting another industry professional. You know your story inside at out. You’ll be fine. There’s plenty of time to collapse and puke after the pitch.

And whatever you do, don’t imagine him/her naked.

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