Monday, April 27 2015
You’ve poured your heart and soul into a book or a story. You’ve edited and polished. Now, you’re ready to share it with your critique partners. If you have a good relationship with your critique partners, they will tell you what didn’t work for them and what did. They’ll tell you your characters leapt off the page and into their hearts, or maybe they felt the heroine was too wishy-washy and the hero too arrogant. They liked your story and can’t wait to find out what happens next. Or maybe they didn’t get the point. What do you do when their comments don’t echo the love you felt when you sent them your pages?
If you want to be a good writer, a better writer, or an excellent writer, you listen to their comments with an open mind.
After careful review, you might decide that you know your heroine better than they do and she has to come across like this for now, or your hero is heading for a fall and his arrogance is going to drive the conflict. But is it possibly you left out something important from their backstory? Something you know inside and out, but your reader hasn’t got a clue to? Not that I’m advocating an information dump, but perhaps you need to revisit your pages and see where hints of their pasts could be inserted to give the reader a reason to love them in spite of their tentativeness or arrogance. Just maybe the reason your critiquers didn’t get the point was because you thought withholding some critical piece of information would make for a nice surprise later on in the book, but on careful reflection they had a point. They needed to know that bit in order to get why the hero or heroine was even doing this or that now. And trust me, your critique partners are only the first people who are reading your work. Next comes your editor who’s likely to be just as discerning and then your readers who won’t hesitate to shoot you down if you leave them hanging when they expected better of you.
If your crit partner or reader suggests that you should have started somewhere else, listen to them. Maybe you should have. We’ve all heard the lessons on the “HOOK.” The hook in the back cover blurb, the hook in the tag line, the hook at the end of the first page and again at the end of the first chapter. Once you’ve convinced a reader to pick up your book, you don’t want to give them any reason to put it down again until they’ve turned the last page and sighed with pleasure because the story was so awesome or groaned in anguish because there is no more. Some of my favorite books and I’m sure yours as well, were written some time ago, before this world of instant everything from coffee to news cycles to Skype and text messaging. If you revisit those books, how many of them take entire chapters or narrative and description before the action begins. If they were being written today they’d never make it into print because the reader would give up long before they got to the action. We read them over again because we already know we love the characters and the story, but we might be skimming over that boring beginning. So if someone tells you that you began your story in the wrong place, it’s worth taking seriously.
In the end, the story is yours. The voice is yours and the characters came to be in your imagination. You need to be true to all three, but the importance of keeping an open mind about negative critique can’t be overstated. Consider the comments objectively and then revisit your pages. Sometimes I’ve changed something I thought was great just the way I’d written it, but because my critiquers had brought it up, I tried rewriting it with the change they suggested and discovered that my story was stronger and better than before. Sometimes it’s a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. We are so close to our characters and their struggles, we fail to see what is obvious to anyone looking in from the outside. Other times you will decide it really is just fine and better the way it is, and you won’t change it. But being open to critique will always make you a better writer.
And what about those negative reviews? Sometimes they are frivolous, sometimes totally off the wall. A reader loves sweet romance and they pick up erotica because they liked the cover maybe. It’s not the author’s fault they didn’t like the sex. In another book a reader felt the language was coarse and the carnage too graphic, so why did they choose to buy a book written by a soldier about the war that gives him nightmares? Those reviews can be dismissed. Yeah, they hurt, but they don’t count. But if several reviewers all found the same problem, maybe it is worth considering. Unless you are self-published and can fix and repost the book, it’s too late to change this book, but the critique can be considered for all future books.
Not everyone is going to love your work, just as you aren’t going to like everything else that’s out there to read, but any critique or review might contain a nugget of wisdom that will help you grow as a writer. Instead of letting a bad review ruin your whole day or your whole week, consider it an opportunity to be better than you already are.
Saturday, April 18 2015
What keeps me glued to a story start to finish? Characters I care about. It’s totally about characters, whether it’s a romance, a thriller or women’s fiction. If I can’t care about the characters, then why on earth would I care about what happens to them?
In a romance, I want a hero I can fall in love with and I want a heroine who is strong, resourceful and generous who can laugh at herself. In a mainstream, thriller, intrigue or drama, I want a protagonist who is portrayed as someone I’d like to have as a friend. Heroes and heroines don’t have to be perfect, gorgeous, young, wealthy or powerful. They should be flawed, but aware of their failings and trying to be better people. I am especially drawn to heroes who have been hurt and have found or are finding the courage to overcome the things that have broken their hearts and spirits.
When an author lets me into the heart and soul of his or her characters early in the story that makes me stay with the story when things begin to fall apart. Think about some of the events one reads about in the paper, or sees on the eleven o’clock news. A child has been abducted, a family was seriously injured in an auto accident, a policeman was ambushed and killed in a big city, or a volunteer fireman was crushed by falling timbers in a raging fire while he was trying to rescue a trapped old man. All of these events are the things we feel sorry about, but how many of them do we remember a few days later?
But consider Jeff Bauman and Carlos Arredondo whose faces captured the world’s attention the day after the Boston Marathon bombing. Arredondo in a cowboy hat doing his best to staunch blood from Bauman’s shattered legs was caught on camera and immediately they became the face of that horrific event. For some, perhaps many, that picture and the momentary thoughts they gave to the two men were the end of the story. But then we got to know more about them. We found out that Carlos Arredondo had lost a son in Iraq and was still suffering from that heartbreak when he launched himself into the middle of the chaos to save Jeff Bauman’s life. In the days and weeks that followed we began to see the depths of courage Jeff Bauman exhibited as he came to terms with the loss of his legs. As the personalities of these two men and their stories were revealed, we became engrossed in them and we began to pray for them and hope for the best. We wanted them both to become triumphant over the evil that had befallen them. They were no longer strangers we cared about only in passing.
That’s what an author has to do to keep me riveted to a story. They have to reveal the heartbreaks, the pain, the goodness, the courage, the generosity of their characters and make me care. Then I can’t put the book down because I simply have to know what happens to these people I’ve come to love. I enjoy a good thriller and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher stories are at the top of my list of favorites, but it’s not because Child fills his books with action or endows Reacher with incredible fighting skills. It’s because he makes me care about Jack Reacher as a person. A man with a past and a present I might not fully understand, but yet, a man I can care about. He’s had his losses and heartbreaks, he’s been places and seen things that have done their best to break his spirit, but he’s remained an honorable man in spite of them and he’s always setting aside his own life to help others. That’s what keeps me glued to Jack Reacher stories. It’s the same with David Baldacci’s Oliver Stone. Oliver Stone is a very different character from Jack Reacher and his past is revealed bit by bit over the course of several books, but in the beginning, in the very first book of the series, in the first couple chapters Baldacci made me care about Oliver by showing me the caliber of the man Oliver is and hinting at the suffering and loss in his past. Whatever the current intrigue or conflict, I am cheering for Oliver Stone and his odd collection of friends because the author created characters I could care about and become totally engrossed in.
When it comes to romance, I almost never read about rich and powerful men. I’m more taken with men who’ve made something of themselves without wealth and family influence. A soldier, a cowboy, a man who builds houses – their status means little, it’s their personality that counts for me. Men who can be strong when they have to, yet have their weaknesses. Men who aren't afraid to show their feelings and men who put the ones they love above themselves. The same goes for my heroines. There are very few women in this world blessed with stunning beauty, so I’d rather read about real women. Strong, capable, amusing, intelligent and loving. It’s not her beauty that makes Cinderella a character the world is forever in love with, it’s the struggles she faces and her cheerful resilience in the face of adversity. It was not Johnny Castle’s charm and good looks that won the hearts of women in Dirty Dancing, it was his humility, his humanity and caring more about Frances "Baby" Hauseman than himself. And it wasn’t Julia Robert’s beauty that made me care about Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman, it was the strength of her character, her determination to be someone in spite of her background and her willingness to teach a man who knew little of love what loving was meant to be even if it broke her heart.
So, for me, it’s all about the characters. Whatever the genre, if I don’t come to care for the characters early on in the book, it matters little how gorgeous the scenery, or how dire the circumstances, I’m probably not going to finish the book. And the books that stick with me long after I’ve closed the covers and put them back on the shelf are the books peopled by unforgettable characters I fell in love with and couldn’t turn my back on.
What keeps you glued to a story? Don't hesitate to leave a comment below. And in the mean time, why not check out some of these other authors and see what keeps them turning pages.
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/q
Ginger Simpson http://firstname.lastname@example.org
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/
Margaret Fieland http://www.margaretfieland.com/blog1/
Helena Fairfax http://helenafairfax.com/
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Connie Vines http://connievines.blogspot.com/
Rachael Kosnski http://rachaelkosinski.weebly.com/
Victoria Chatham http://victoriachatham.webs.com/
Lynn Crain http://www.awriterinvienna.blogspot.com
Rhobin Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com/
Tuesday, April 14 2015
Readers often ask writers where do you get your ideas? Writers ask each other the same thing sometimes. The answer can be as simple as I went for a walk, or it could be far harder to explain. Ideas come from many places and are fed by brainstorming with yourself or others. For me, it's mostly about creating complex characters and then putting them in a difficult situation to see what they will do. For those who write thrillers or who-done-its the front page of the daily paper is teeming with possibilities. Seems like there are crazy things happening all around us every day. And I dare anyone with an imagination to visit a historical site of any type and not find lots of ideas lurking in the ancient walls and pathways.
My first book in print was a mainstream novel about three men in a tight race for the White House. I once flippantly replied to the query what made me write it that I didn’t like any of the choices I’d had for most of my adult life and decided to create my own candidates. In a way, that was partially true once I got to creating the characters, but mostly it was one man’s personal journey. My protagonist was in a close, three-way campaign for president when he was confronted with a personal crisis during the last critical weeks. I got my ideas from a number of places, some of them real life stories. Here, newspaper stories about different people experiencing different life events and how those impacted their public life provided leaping off places. My imagination did the rest.
I also enjoy historicals. Partly because I enjoy history and partly because I like to imagine living in a different era, a past very unlike where I exist. Ideas for stories seem to leap out at me when I visit old sites. One book, not yet in print but hopefully one of these days, starts out on an island off the coast of Maine. I sailed there with my daughter and my dad one glorious summer day. The island was once a busy community of farmers and fishermen, but today it’s deserted with just old cellar holes to mark where the houses once stood. I’d read some of the history of the island before I sailed out there and knew there had been a bustling trading center at the time of the Revolutionary War. So, as I stood on the edge of one of those empty fieldstone foundations gazing back towards the brilliant blue harbor, one of the stones beneath my feet wobbled. Then came the random thought: What if I fell into that old cellar, hit my head and was knocked unconscious? And what if when I woke up, there was a roof over my head? So that’s exactly what happened to my heroine. I had a grand time writing that story.
Old deserted buildings of all kinds provoke questions about who lived there once and what their lives might have been like. Castles and churches, old taverns and narrow twisting alleys lined with homes built hundreds of years ago. Maybe it’s just my busy imagination, or maybe it’s the ghosts of those people who once lived there urging me to tell their stories. A visit to the Boston Tea Party museum and a meeting with Samuel Adams, or a saunter around Mount Vernon and a chat with George Washington’s body servant make the men and women we met in the history books back when we were in school come alive. Suddenly their everyday lives inspire me with stories of others who might have lived back then, in those same places, experiencing those same events.
I’m currently writing a contemporary romance series about a family living in a town I created on the coast of North Carolina. I can’t say for sure where Jake first came from, but he grew out of the aspects that I find intriguing about the heroes I’ve read and been touched by, both fictional and real. And the more I knew about him, the more I discovered about the kind of heroine he’d be likely to fall in love with. Then it was just a matter of putting them together with a mountain of conflict to overcome. So, I guess it all just boils down to asking yourself, "What if?" And letting your imagination take flight.
Tuesday, April 07 2015
My campaign to instill an interest in history in my grandchildren added a new chapter yesterday. Theresa, Lynn and I took a ferry out to visit Lady Liberty and Ellis Island. Before our trip Theresa (almost 10) read a novel about a boy who went on a field trip to Ellis Island and ended up meeting his own ancestor when he traveled back in time. Lynn (a first grader) devoured a book loaded with facts about the Ellis Island immigration center, and I found it amazing the amount of facts she soaked up and shared when we were there.
We would have liked to possess tickets to climb up inside the newly renovated Lady Liberty, but those were sold out until June. Perhaps I’ll have to come back and we can go again. Instead, we scooped up the recorded guides and setout to learn about this magnificent gift from the People of France that represents what America is all about for the millions of immigrants who gave up everything they once knew to come to America. Both girls were amazed to learn that in 1886 when Liberty Enlightening the World was first erected, she was the tallest thing in New York City. For kids born in an era of 100-story skyscrapers trying to wrap their minds around the fact that the tallest buildings in NYC were only five stories tall, but Lady Liberty was 22 stories tall was quite a stretch. How much more impressive this incredible statue must have been then! Theresa was pretty taken with the fact that even her fingernails are as long as an adult’s forearm.
Although I’d been out to visit this National Monument before, even I learned a few new things – most striking – around her feet are chains and a broken shackle that represent freedom and that her tablet is inscribed with the date of our own declaration of independence, July 4th 1776.
The great Hall where immigrants were processed.
Then it was back to the ferry for Ellis Island where we took a ranger guided tour, and Lynn shared more of the interesting facts she remembered from her book. She told us that immigrants were asked if they had the $25 required (as proof of self-sustainability,) but some lied as they had no money at all. Medical exams were brief and if you had any number of ailments, they would write a letter on your jacket in chalk. Certain nationalities were required to turn their jackets inside out and women were lot allowed to immigrate unless they had a husband with them or waiting for them. But even more impressive than the little details were the bigger figures.
From 1892 when the federal government took over restricting who could and could not immigrate into America until 1954 when the facility on Ellis Island was closed, over 12 million people came to our shores via this entry point and on their busiest day, April 17th 1907, officials processed 11,747 individuals. It is said that over 40% of Americans today can trace at least one ancestor back to Ellis Island.
Another ferry ride took us back to Manhattan. On landing we stopped to watch a talented group of brothers demonstrate some fantastic break dancing moves before heading north to visit the 9/11 World Trade Center memorial. For the girls, the square water pools that delineate where the buildings once stood were fun to check out, but having been born since that day, they are too young to feel the gut-deep horror of what that day must have been like for those who were there when the planes flew into the towers or the powerful emotions that fill the hearts of everyone else who remembers with sharp poignancy where they were and what they were doing with they first heard the news.
I’m not sure where our next history adventure will take us, but this bright spring day taught all three of us a few new things about what a blessing it is to be an American.