We 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:
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.
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!
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.
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 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 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 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.
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?
We’ll be covering these elements in greater detail over the coming weeks. In the meantime, good luck and get writing!
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.
During my ‘start-up’ years, when I was entering writing contests and getting feedback from judges, I learned that there are some people who will respond well to your work – and some who just won’t ‘get it’. On the rare occasion, there will even be a few who downright hate it. But here’s the thing – contests are conducted in the spirit of anonymity. The judge doesn’t know it’s YOU they are reading, so they are responding to the work in front of them, not you as a person. They’re critiquing the work, not you.
Toughen up and get over it.
Then, as I graduated to finishing an actual story and submitted it to publishers, I learned again that the publishing world does not revolve around moi (I know, I was shocked, too). My first book (that I thought was just awesome) got rejected. Actually, I believe I’ve gotten the fastest rejection from that N.Y. publisher for an Aussie writer – ever.
I remember tearing open that tiny little envelope, heart-pounding, to read the “thank you for submitting your work, but…” line. I even tried to cry, then gave up because it felt forced. They hadn’t liked it enough to want to offer a contract. That’s okay. I mean, I was still breathing. The world was still turning. The sun was still shining, damn it. So, I guess life goes on.
I also realised that publishing is a business, they’re making a business decision. A publisher needs some sort of guarantee (however tepid) that the book they commission will sell, and sell well. They know what has worked in the past, what hasn’t, what they are willing to take a risk on – and what they’re not willing to take a risk on. So, business decision, not personal. So don’t take it personally. It’s that particular project they’re rejecting, not you.
Please note: manuscript may not have been so awesome…
Toughen up and get over it.
When I did finally sell my first novel to a publisher, I was ecstatic. And then the reviews came in. Much like a writing contest, there were some reviewers who responded well, others who just didn’t ‘get it’, and a few who downright hated it.
I will admit some of the not-so positive reviews can be hard to take, especially if you actually respect, admire and even like said reviewer. During my working years as an export agent, there was a saying in our department that has become a little mantra for me: Love it, leave it or fix it.
So I employed this attitude to reviews. I could either love it (hey, not so hard when they’re positive!), leave it – press delete, especially if it’s attacking more than the writing, like…me, personally. Or fix it. Yes, seriously, fix it. I found (duck head) that some of those reviewers may have actually had a point. That buried in the “I’m not adoring you right now” blurb, there was a little kernel that I could use to develop and improve my craft.
I’ve also learned that you will never please everyone, all of the time. Life is balanced, you have to have the negative with the positive, the good with the bad, the Yin with the Yang.
My mother used to always say, “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. She used to also say “treat others like you want to be treated”. These days, though, there are a rising number of incidents online that show this message has somehow been lost with a minority group.
A troll is a mythical creature, mean, ugly, hiding under a bridge to try to stop others from progressing forward on their journey (think Three Billy Goats Gruff), and it seems the internet version is not so far from that mythical beast.
With the recent cases of Charlotte Dawson and Robbie Farah in Australia (two personalities I have a lot of respect for, they’ve worked darn hard for their success), as well as a close writer friend, the culture of trolling has been spotlighted.
Trolls are people who will say the nastiest of things in order to get a reaction – kind of like a bully. But these special bullies are anonymous, and feel not only capable, but compelled to make comments from a protective distance that is meant to undermine, hurt and possibly even defame their target. Note – they won’t say it to your face, or within physical reach. A troll is also similar to a two-year-old (sorry, no disrespect intended to the two-year-olds!) in that their opinion is the only one they’re interested in. You can’t reason or use logic on a troll, they ignore it in their strategy of inflaming and getting what they want – attention.
Kate Cuthbert, recently-appointed editor for Harlequin Escape and long-time reviewer, stated at the 2012 Romance Writers Association Conference (AU) to any writer dealing with negative comment: “Do not engage. Just…don’t. And if you’re thinking of doing it – don’t.” I happen to agree.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion (this is pretty much the essence of any blog!), but I think it reveals more of a person in the way they express that opinion. As the recipient of the opinion, you can choose to respect it, disregard it, or ignore it completely. Bearing in mind that the sole aim of a troll is to either get attention, or cause maximum damage, the only way that can be achieved is by actually giving them attention. When dealing with a troll, take a leaf out of the legend. Be that third Billy Goat Gruff, and push the troll off the bridge. Block them. Delete them. Move on.
Tips on Handling Rejection, Reviews and Internet Trolls
1. Do not respond. No matter how tempting it is to tell that editor that they’ve missed the point, here is what you really meant, or that reviewer that no, your character is really deep, they just glossed over the carefully woven backstory, or the internet troll that they really are rude, wrong, and ridiculous – don’t. Just don’t. You can’t retain your dignity when wrestling with muck.
2. Toughen up. There will be some folks out there who may not like what you do. There will be somethings that are said that will hurt. You can choose to dwell on it, or get over it. Get over it.
3. Respect a difference in opinion. You love your book, that reviewer didn’t. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, or you are right, or vice versa, merely that you have a different opinion. Books can never be viewed objectively. It’s a subjective material, to be interpreted and received differently from person to person, based on experience and attitudes.
4. Block and Delete. When faced with negative attacks (note: this is different to a negative review!), stop the person from getting to you again, and delete the comment. Don’t give it any attention, as that can quickly become toxic.
5. Commiserate. If all else fails, have a glass of wine, some chocolate, and laugh/cry about it with the friends who realise your true worth, and support you. Let them help you put it into perspective.
And whatever you do, don’t feed the trolls!
It’s great to be here for a Q & A session, which had me digging deep at times. Thanks for the interesting questions.
How did you get started writing?
Okay, now I have to ‘fess up to being an obnoxious teen. Back in the day, I loved to read (still do, of course). Anyway I read this book (nope, not going to mention the title), which I absolutely loved. Except for its ending. I figured I could write better. (Well, I was an obnoxious teen.) I gave it a go and soon realised that–duh!—I couldn’t do better. In fact, what I wrote sucked so badly, it didn’t even score a place in my bottom drawer. Only one option: immediate and total destruction. It was a year before I summoned the courage to try writing again. This time accompanied by some much needed humility.
What was your journey to publication?
Well, it was full of speed bumps. Lots of flitting from hot genre to hot genre (not recommended if you want to find your own voice). Many rejections later, I took a chance and wrote a story in a quirky first person voice that felt kinda natural. To my utter amazement, publishers were interested. That little story became the first book in the Allegra Fairweather series.
What is your “call” story, when your first work was accepted for publication?
When I got the call, which was actually an email, I didn’t react the way I’d expected. Instead of screaming and happy dancing, I went numb. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to get published at last. I kept thinking the email must have been meant for someone else. Until my husband pointed out it was unlikely anyone else had written a story called Allegra Fairweather: Paranormal Investigator. Then he took me out for a celebratory lunch. After that it kind of sunk in, and I did some happy dancing. Line dancing that is.
What have you learned about readers since getting published?
Readers are wonderful! Without readers there would be no one to hear our stories, no hearts to touch, no funny bones to tickle. I love readers. In fact, I am one. It’s hard to be a writer without first being a reader.
What have you learned about writing since getting published?
I’ve learned to juggle. Let me explain.
Last year I was working full steam ahead on the latest Allegra Fairweather story—let’s call it AF5—when I was offered the chance to write a novella for the anthology Carina Press Presents: Editor’s Choice Vol II. To be included, I first had to submit a synopsis for approval. That meant temporarily abandoning AF5 to write the synopsis. When it was approved, I got to work on the novella. Once again it was full steam ahead until I received extensive edits for Island of Secrets. You still with me? Great. So, I stopped work on the novella, and spent four weeks completing the edits. Then it was back to the novella. Around this time I was also brainstorming new titles for both works in progress. Fast forward three months and I’m working on edits—developmental and copy—for both Island of Secrets and the novella, which was published as Dance of Flames.
So I can now claim to be an experienced, if not expert, juggler.
What are you working on next?
AF5—remember the one I was working on all those months ago—well it’s been accepted by Carina Press. All I have to do now is…finish the darn book!
Tell us about your most recent release.
Island of Secrets is the third novel in the Allegra Fairweather series. (The novella, Dance of Flames is kind of a 3.5). By the way, if you’re wondering who designs the gorgeous covers for the series, it’s Frauke Spanuth of CrocoDesigns.
I’m a paranormal investigator without a home of my own. So when a wealthy client offers me a lucrative job on a private South Pacific island, I jump at the opportunity.
It’s not all fun in the sun, though. A dead merman—no, really—with an arrow in his chest has washed up on shore. My investigation reveals a century-old war between the mers and a goblin tribe, who believe the mers stole their treasure. But the real thief was a pirate! He buried the treasure and died before digging it up again.
Casper, my guardian angel and sort-of-but-not-really boyfriend, usually helps me out but he’s acting all weird and busy. The only person left who can help me find the treasure is the pirate’s former girlfriend, who happens to be a forgetful, alcoholic ghost.
Oh, and I’m not the only one searching for this treasure. Someone else wants it badly and they’re prepared to commit murder to prevent anyone else from getting it…
I know what plot is. It’s action, and especially, it’s conflict. Conflict drives stories. But conflict is hard. I hate making my heroine suffer. She’s so nice. Why can’t everybody just get along? But of course, there’s no story if everybody’s happy. Without action, without conflict, there’s no plot, and then there’s no story.
Not all actions are created equal. To be plot, actions have to have consequences. In one of my favorite series, Charlaine Harris’s character, Sookie Stackhouse, likes to take showers. Early in Dead Reckoning, Sookie takes a shower after a tough night waiting tables at the bar. She relaxes in the hot water, letting her concerns wash away.
Then she goes to bed.
Is that plot? Of course not. It’s description, and it’s foreshadowing, but Sookie’s shower doesn’t have any consequences. There’s no real action in the action.
It’s different, though, when Sookie takes a shower with Eric. As anyone who reads the series knows, that shower had a lot of consequences, and not just the immediate, ah, steamy ones.
And then compare those showers to the shower scene in Psycho. In it, Robert Bloch’s character Marion Crane is bathing to wash away her guilt about embezzling from her employer. (Conflict there, much? She feels guilty—internal conflict—and she’s being pursued as a suspect—external conflict. Conflict galore!)
We all know what happened in that shower scene in Psycho—Marion Crane is stabbed to death, and what washes down the drain in that scene is a lot more than just her daily worries. But her disappearance triggers an investigation, which leads to more mayhem. That’s consequence. That’s plot.
When I read books (sometimes many books) where the world is threatened, or the universe is threatened, or all the universes in all the galaxies in all of space are threatened, I sometimes think that’s a bit of overkill. I like a nice, juicy scare as much as the next person, but in real life, my biggest scare is usually along the lines of whether I’ll finish the milk before it goes sour.
But in writing Zero Gravity Outcasts, I went for the Big Scare myself, in the form of an interplanetary civil war. It’s because the consequences of actions have to be important. If they’re not, who cares? Not the readers, and not even the characters. The heroine might as well stay home and defrost the fridge.
Which I sort of like in a heroine, but I get that readers don’t—except maybe unless the secret capacitor compartment was punctured, and the freon escapes, and the world is threatened by expanding, poisonous gases… and the heroine doesn’t want to call Gas Busters because she’d planned to settle in with a movie and some popcorn, but the handsome agent rings the bell, and…like that. In any event, the concept of struggle—of conflict—is key.
The thing I have to keep asking myself when I write is, what’s at stake? If my protagonist fights the Deadly Hammer for 300 pages, killing angels and fairies and puppies along the way as collateral damage, suffers grievous wounds and the loss of family and friends, she better get more out of it than a trip to the store for a fresh quart of milk.
But that’s a whole other story. One that, I hope, I’ll be able to plot better next time.
Kay Keppler likes happy endings, whether they’re in the fiction she writes, the fiction she edits, or the fiction she reads. After all, an unhappy outcome is what the newspaper is for! Her characters are resourceful to a fault, hard-working to the extreme, and loyal to the end—but she’s still working on a decent plot. You can find her at kaykeppler.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @KayKeppler.
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I know this is going to date me, but I might as well be honest: when I started university, back in (gasp!) the late 1980s, I brought an electric typewriter to school with me. We did have a computer at home—a state-of-the-art 386 PC that ran on MS-DOS—but my dad, himself a university professor, thought I could get by with the typewriter for at least my first year. By second year I had one of his cast-offs, a behemoth that gave off heat like a star going supernova, and once I’d got the hang of all that Shift-F7 crap it did come in pretty handy.
When I finished my undergraduate degree and was accepted into graduate school in the U.K., I knew I needed the best computer that my limited funds could buy. So I plunked down nearly every penny I had on one of Apple’s first notebook computers, a two-inch-thick marvel with a 10-inch grayscale screen. I adored it.
After finishing grad school I became an editor, and my Macbook was relegated to my closet. The only research I did, for a number of years, was related to fact-checking queries. By the time I began to think about writing historical romance, like my novel, Improper Relations – more than ten years later, my little laptop had become utterly obsolete.
But it wasn’t only my computer that had fallen behind the times. My entire attitude to research—my entire methodology and approach—was also in dire need of an update.
While I’d been busy with work, marriage and starting a family, entire libraries had been digitized. Most of the newspapers I’d once consulted on microfiche, page after eye-watering page, had been scanned and uploaded to websites. Gigantic swaths of the National Archives were available for online consultation. Even the gloomy and officious Public Record Office, the bane of many a researcher, had slowly begun to digitize its collection.
Along the way, the very nature of research and information gathering had changed. When I was in grad school, my days in the libraries and archives felt like detective hunts. Much of the information I needed was difficult to track down, hard to access, and time-consuming to record and interpret. If I ended the day with even a snippet of relevant facts and figures, I felt I’d triumphed against the odds.
The opposite seems to be true now—some days I feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information that’s at my fingertips. How to judge the good from the bad? The reliable from the fantastic? The vetted from the mischievous or just plain dishonest?
I wouldn’t dream of saying I have a fail-safe approach, but I can suggest a few tips that will help you make the most of your time when researching.
- Start with reputable sources, such as digitized collections of official archives, museums, university libraries and the like. There you’ll find the sort of primary sources I used to dream about in grad school—and you won’t have to spend weeks on end in a musty reading room to access them.
- Don’t be afraid of Wikipedia, but don’t rely on it as a source in and of itself. Instead, think of it as a portal to other useful sources. If you see a piece of information that is promising, click on its accompanying footnote. Needless to say, if there are no footnotes, or if the sources cited are less than impeccable, you’ll want to take everything you read on that particular page with a generous pinch of salt.
- Google creatively. It’s something we all know by now, but tend to forget when we’re on the trail of an elusive piece of information: if your search comes up dry, try again. Use fewer keywords—or more. Try an image search and see what pops up. (So helpful when looking up details about costume or setting.) Whatever happens, don’t give up because Google tells you there’s nothing out there about 15th-century weaponry or weather patterns in the antebellum South or the method used by early 20th-century field surgeons to insert a chest tube. The latter, incidentally, is a search I performed recently, and it took a few tries before I began to get useful answers.
- Do a keyword search on Google Books. If you’re lucky you might be directed to a book or article that’s been digitized. Even if the book itself isn’t fully searchable, you may be able to look at the bibliography or footnotes in “snippet” format and glean some more information that way. If you don’t happen to live near a large university or reference library this can be a real time-saver.
- Don’t discount one-person-show websites. I’ve come across all kinds of sites set up by family genealogists, amateur historians and enthusiasts for arcane hobbies that look a bit rinky-dink but are actually goldmines of information. On one such site I found detailed railway timetables for the 1850s that someone had meticulously transcribed from some near-illegible pamphlets; on another I discovered scans of original Edwardian-era telephone directories for central London. Priceless!
- If all else fails, do the sniff test. Does what you’re reading seem a bit…off? Are the facts fascinating but lacking in any sort of documentation? Does the website’s author appear to have an ax to grind or an agenda to push? If so, take a step back and look for corroborating sources. It will take up some time, but it’s better than relying on information that’s worth less than the virtual paper it’s written on.
I’d love to hear what tactics you take when researching your works in progress. What is your gold standard for sources? And what makes you run a mile in the opposite direction?
An editor by profession but an historian by inclination, Juliana Ross lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and young children. In her spare time she cooks for family and friends, makes slow inroads into her weed patch of a garden, and reads romance novels (the steamier the better) on her eReader.
You can find Juliana on her website, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook and—her newest obsession—Pinterest. And you can buy Improper Relations at most stores that sell eBooks, including Carina, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and All Romance.
Not a day goes by that you don’t hear a writer talk about coffee or chocolate. Or both. I mean, seriously.. every writer I know loves and dare I say – craves them both so I decided to do a little research to find out why. Take chocolate for instance.
Apparently chocolate really IS better than sex!
Who knew? (Okay, I did suspect, but that’s only Lindor Balls… and possibly Guylian Shells). The explanation goes like this: Chocolate increases production of the hormone oxytocin which is released whenever you feel attracted to some one. It gives you a feeling of safety, and when associated with someone or something else, creates a feeling of trust and ownership. It is also the hormone that creates the muscles spasms of an orgasm!
Alright you say…is this just chocolate company hype to get you to buy the stuff? Heck, I don’t care if it’s all in the mind or not – placebo effect is good enough for me! I mean, orgasms. Yes. But wait – there’s more! It seems chocolate stimulates the secretion of endorphins, producing a pleasurable sensation similar to the “runner’s high. Chocolate also contains a neurotransmitter, serotonin, that acts as an anti-depressant – and to top it off chocolate is an anti-oxidant. Research published in the Medical Journal “The Lancet”, shows that eating chocolate could prevent cancer and heart disease and contrary to popular belief also fights tooth decay.
In another research study Holland’s National Institute of Public Health and Environment show that chocolates contain antioxidants called Catechins and Phenols. These antioxidants could prevent heart diseases and cancer. Good stuff!
By acting as a deoxidizing agent , the phenols prevent clogging of arteries, thus averting heart attacks. The researchers also believe that the cacao plant, where chocolate and cocoa is derived, boosts the immune system and restricts the formation of bad cholesterol.
The body is an amazing thing and it seems that occasionally it can do the right thing by us and crave something that is actually good for you. The phenomenon is called “Wisdom of the Body.”
So someone says.
That’s good enough for me 🙂
And then there’s coffee….ah coffee…how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
As a writer I have to admit I might be a bit of a procrastinator. Shocked? What a surprise!
So drinking a cup of coffee helps me with my inspiration. It helps bring back my focus. It wakes me up every morning. It gives me a lift in the afternoon when the slump hits.
Plus it also has health benefits!
Imagine a drink that helps prevent Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It’s also an antioxidant like chocolate. Sure, it might not give you that orgasm, but my God you can stay awake long enough to have one!
And it tastes awesome! Plus coffee shops have the best ambience. And the cutest Italian baristas 🙂
So tell me what your favourite chocolate or coffee indulgence is? One lucky person will be randomly selected to win a free ebook of your choice from my backlist. So get posting!
I’m Maggie Nash and I write romance novels. Some of them are suspenseful, some are pretty hot, and some of them are a little bit kinky, but what they all have in common is a fun, romantic ending. I started writing more by accident than design when one day I ran out of books to read so I started writing one myself. And, boy, am I glad I did, because writing has become a huge part of my life. I live with my family on the beautiful south coast of New South Wales in Australia. You can find me most days having a cappuccino at the beach!
I am admittedly a dinosaur. I wrote several of my early novels on a manual typewriter, a heavy all-metal thing that was called a portable simply because it came with a case – made of wood, no less – and could be carried with one (strong!) hand. It also was immediate death to any kind of manicure or nail polish. My father gave it to me and for that I treasure it and will never give it away, though I doubt that in these days I could depress the keys. I’m too spoiled to the modern ease of a computer keyboard that registers the slightest touch and doesn’t chip my nails.
Then, when I was a young woman, I saved my pennies and got an electric portable. Oh, that was heaven! I could type all day and the tips of my fingers wouldn’t go numb. Most of the time it didn’t even bother my nail polish. Of course, the motor sounded sort of like there was a big truck idling in the next room, but the lighter touch more than made up for that.
There were drawbacks. No spell-check. Cut and paste meant exactly that. You typed one (hopefully!) clean copy, then spent a mint having it photocopied. But that was true of manuals too, and at least my fingers didn’t ache. As much.
Fast forward to the computer era. This is nothing but pure magic. A light keyboard touch, vast amounts of storage that doesn’t mean several filing cabinets taking up floor space, spell-check, the ability to print as many copies as you like… the thought of such luxuries was a pipe dream in my young years and, a couple of centuries before that would probably have gotten someone burned at the stake.
If there is one thing I have learned, though, it is that there is no rose without a thorn, no Eden without its serpent. Yes, we have made the physical act of writing so much easier and the internet has placed the power of publishing in the hands of the masses. That is good and that is bad.
The good is that publishing and distribution are no longer in the iron grip of a small coterie with pretty much the power of professional life or death.
The bad is that pretty much all control and standards – and enforcement of those standards – are gone.
In the old days a book had to go through a pretty rigorous gauntlet of acceptance and then endure several rounds of editing, usually emerging better and stronger. Of course some bad books did make it through the system, but not many.
Now all it takes to publish a book is a computer and an internet connection. Any collection of half-baked ideas strung together with doubtful grammar, pathetic word choices, painfully bad spelling and an incoherent storyline can be put up as a book. And, what is worse, someone will buy it.
Is this totally a bad thing? I don’t think so. While this new world of digital self publishing gives professional, seasoned writers unprecedented control over their careers, it also creates a false sense of success for those unwilling to learn the correct protocols of good writing. I am sad for these ‘writers’ because they have just made it harder for themselves to build a legitimate career. Readers have long memories and the internet a longer one.
Another sad phenomenon of this revolution is that plagiarism is now so incredibly easy. Get a copy of a book, change the characters’ names, change the title, self publish and – voila! – instantly you are a published author with little work. Even if no one else notices the theft, though, the plagiarist – a pathetic creature at best – knows the work is not hers. I wonder what satisfaction she can have from it.
Writing a book is work. I know. I sold six books to recognized publishers last year and still am in the editing process on the last few. INHERITANCE OF SHADOWS, my modern gothic mystery, was released by Carina Press on Monday the 12th of March. It was a romp to write, but even when you’re enjoying the act of creation it is still work.
There are rules which must be followed if you wish to turn out a decent product. Far too often wanna-be writers confuse rules of construction with the stifling of creativity. It isn’t so. The purpose of writing on whatever kind of machine – quill pen to manual portable to the internet – is to convey thoughts and ideas, and for that there has to be a common, mutually acceptable ground between writer and reader. Creativity is wasted if the reader has no idea of what the writer is talking about or if the storyline is a chaotic, mis-spelled mishmash.
While the internet and self-publishing and the ease of writing on a computer have opened undreamed-of new vistas to writers, they have also removed the necessity of quality control. I, however, am an optimist. I feel that the good outweighs the bad, and the bad will eventually wither and die. Readers want quality books, and eventually that demand for quality will pretty much burn away the dreck.
Or perhaps before that happens the technology of writing will make another quantum leap and this entire discussion will seem quaint and old-fashioned. I just hope whatever it is, it won’t chip my manicure.
Janis Susan May is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who writes mysteries as Janis Patterson, romances and other things as Janis Susan May, children’s books as Janis Susan Patterson and scholarly works as J.S.M. Patterson. Formerly an actress and singer, a talent agent and Supervisor of Accessioning for a bio-genetic DNA testing lab, Janis has also been editor-in-chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups as well as many other things, including an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist. Janis married for the first time when most of her contemporaries were becoming grandmothers. Her husband, also an Egyptophile, even proposed in a moonlit garden near the Pyramids of Giza. Janis and her husband live in Texas with an assortment of rescued furbabies,
You can find Janis Susan May’s latest release, Inheritance of Shadows, at these sites: