Sunday, November 29, 2015

Nine Questions to Steal Your Writer-ly Heart

By Jodie Cain Smith

I admit it. I have a girl crush. And this flame has burned for two decades. So, what dazzling creature gained my unfaltering devotion? Uta Hagen. What has she done to make my heart a’twitter all these years? She created nine simple questions every fiction writer needs to know and answer. Oh, sure, she created the questions for actors, but I find Uta Hagen’s Nine Questions to be as helpful to novel writing as they are on a stage.

If you are staring at a blank screen or have fallen down a rabbit hole without a ladder, or a minor character has hijacked your novel, stop and ask your protagonist these nine questions. The answers are sure to get you back on track and may even fill in some nasty potholes.

1.  Who are you? The answer should include all the details that make your protagonist who he or she is, such as name, age, likes, dislikes, physical description, beliefs, hobbies, career, education, enemies, friends, and culture.

2.  What time is it? Decide the time period, season, time of day, and year. Then ask yourself the significance of that time. Why does your protagonist’s story need to be set in the time you chose? Could it be told in a different time?

3.  Where are you? Country, city, neighborhood, fantasy world with puffy pink clouds and lava for sidewalks are important, but so is the structure, i.e. type of house, size of room, area of room. All of these details will affect the action. And unless your 50,000+ words all take place in one room, you will need to answer this question for each location.

4.  What surrounds you? Inanimate and animate objects fill out a space and a scene.

5.  What are the given circumstances? The past, present, and future have distinct effects on your story and your main character. If they don’t, make bigger choices, raise the stakes. Everything in your story should affect the main character in some way. 

6.  What are your relationships? The relationships you give your protagonist to other characters, events, and setting will move the plot forward.  

7.  What do you want? If your protagonist doesn’t want something, stop writing. Just close your laptop and walk away. Yep, that’s how important goals are. Make sure to choose one big one that trumps all others. Whether or not he or she achieves that goal is the ending, and, for me, the fun part.

8.  What is in your way?  Okay, maybe this is the fun part. What is the point of creating fiction without obstacles, conflict, and twists and turns?

9.  What do you do to get what you want? The answer to this goes deeper than mere plot points and tactics. Ask your character what he or she is willing to do to win. The answer may surprise you. 

Nine Questions. It’s that simple. I heart Uta.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Finding X a Spot

By Kasie Whitener

I’ve been querying my GenX novel After December to small press publishers. I made the decision after doing an agent-pitch last spring.

The agent said nobody wants to read about the ’90s. It’s too recent to be considered historic and too long ago to be considered relevant.

To be honest, I don’t remember that much about the ’90s. We have Trivial Pursuit the ’90s Edition and it’s ridiculously hard.

In the “Tinkering With History” panel at Atoma-CON last weekend, the four writers disagreed that the ’90s wasn’t history. It’s pre-9/11 so the lens isn’t yet blurred by terrorism and war. It’s all dot-com hangover sliding toward reality TV.

They said the agent may not have been the right sales person for my work. Well, duh.

Agent: “Why can’t this guy just be 22 now?”
Me: “Like, a Millennial?”
Agent: “Yeah.”
Me: “But there’d be social media and a big part of the story is his detachment from his friends.”
Agent: “Maybe he’s just not into social media.”
Me: “A Millennial?”

I know some Millenials and they’re basically good kids. But come on. Their value system is very very different from mine. Stripping GenX from Brian Listo is like making Elizabeth Bennett a lesbian. While it might be a doable version of the story, it would be a very different story.

Agent: “Who would read this novel?”
Me: “Book clubs, you know, those GenX moms who drink wine and remember their high school boyfriends? Also possibly college kids now. My beta readers were college kids.”
Agent: “So Millenials are a target audience?”
Me: “Sure, I mean, I read Ethan Hawke’s college-kid-finds-love-and-loses-it novel The Hottest State when I was in college and it resonated.”
Agent: “So then the main character should be one of them.”
Me: (face palm)

You don’t have to make a book about the Millenials. They’ll make the book about themselves. For crying out loud, most of them think DiCaprio originated the role of Jay Gatsby.

The trouble with that agent wasn’t just that she didn’t get it. She couldn’t sell it. And if an agent doesn’t think she can sell your work, she isn’t going to try to rep it.

Industry insiders keep saying that agents reflect what the publishers say they want. So I need to find a publisher who wants to take a risk on a GenX novel.

Publisher: “This isn’t really the kind of work we normally print.”
Me: “I know. You’ll be the first ones in on this new trend.”
Publisher: “We like being first.”
Me: “Honda is putting Strawberry Shortcake and Skeletor in their minivan ads. Marketing to GenX will sell books.”
Publisher: “We like anything that sells.”

So I found a few publishers whose line card includes some edgy stuff and made a list. Now I just have to craft the perfect query and send them the work.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

It’s Getting Harder To Breathe: Writing A Music Review

By Kimberly Johnson

Truth be told, I have been looking for clever ways to add Adam Levine into my blog.  I found it—an entry that shatters my outlook about music review writing. Maroon 5’s front man is my newest crush (Sorry, Blake). Adam is a girl’s daydream: he’s good-looking; he’s on a hit tv show The Voice; and he’s has a breathtaking set of pipes. The song Sugar  is a never-ending vehicle of sensual swagger that drives any girl crazy. 
Your sugar, Yes, please, Won't you come and put it down on meI'm right here, 'cause I need, Little love and little sympathyYeah you show me good loving, Make it alrightNeed a little sweetness in my life, Your sugar, Yes, please, Won't you come and put it down on me

I believed writing a music review was pretentious—listen to a song, tell the reader that it was good, bad or ugly and then collect a check.  Not a bad gig if you could get it. Well I was wrong.  Structure is the basis of a well-reviewed piece. The reviewer employs the universal writing standards, along with the inverted pyramid style —lead sentence, facts, supporting details and a conclusion. The reviewer refrains from using “I” phrases and fanboy worship. The reviewer is an adept researcher, politician and predictor of the next biggest hit.  He investigates the artist’s success and failures on the Billboard charts.  He has to listen to the good, the bad and the ugly and provide an opinion that doesn’t affront the record producers and industry bigwigs.

I believed writing a music review was pretentious.  Now, I believe writing a music review is like
sugar; some sweet, and some not so sweet, yet still hard work.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


By Bonnie Stanard

For some time I thought that a sympathetic protagonist meant only likeable ones. And the advice I got from interviews with literary agents reinforced this misconception. However, I’ve come to realize that bad guys can make for good books. I’m not talking about picaresque rogues of high adventure and rascally wit such as Fielding’s Tom Jones or Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. Let’s think about serious books such as Executioner’s Song; Palace Walk; Perfume; and Clockwork Orange.

It’s easier to write sympathetic, likeable POV characters and, given that they populate best-selling books, it’s obvious we enjoy reading about them. But there’s a place for bad guys, though they present a challenge to the writer.

How can you make a wrong-headed person sympathetic? Or at least engage the reader and hold his interest. Evil is interesting in the mainstream, as long as it’s embodied as the antagonist or foil to our hero. What does it take to put the antagonist in the spotlight? How can we arouse a reader’s passion for a sinner? Capable writers such as Norman Mailer, Naguib Mahfouz, Patrick Suskind, and Anthony Burgess have proved we can.

I’ve just finished reading A Place for Outlaws by Allen Weir, which ends with a murder committed by the main character, Cole, who is in love with a married woman. She convinces him that her jealous husband is dangerous, though there’s no evidence of this. Cole sneaks into the husband’s house with a .38 caliber pistol, presumably to shoot the husband though he isn’t at home. For a 40 year-old, divorced man, Cole displays a disconcerting lack of moral grounding despite a stable upbringing and loving parents. He doesn’t act very smart for a college professor, his given profession. If he were younger, I could believe he sees the world through a prism of hormones and is thereby so infatuated he loses his senses. In the end, it’s not the husband he kills but his mother’s lover in what seems a sudden attack of an Oedipus complex. So why do I question the character of Cole? What could make him more believable? Here are some ideas.

1.      A background with more clues to his dark side
2.      Rational behavior, even if it’s murder
3.      A connection between POV thought and act
4.      Boldness, even if in wrong-doing
5.      Justifiable motives
6.      A conscience, whether honest or deluded

I worried about the character of the male protagonist of my novel Master of Westfall Plantation because he’s not a good guy. Would the reader become absorbed in his adventures when it’s obvious he’s a cruel, demanding slave owner? In this case, the protagonist believes he is a good person. He is blinded to the harm he brings on his family and associates because he is the product of a destructive culture.

The Heart of the Matter
A successful evil protagonist is credible. He acts based on what he believes. Moral norms are distorted. A happy childhood is not a good starting point. Drugs can only explain so much. He can be creative about being destructive. At that, he has moments when he’s good.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Troubled POV That Cost Me $18

By Kasie Whitener

I was forty-five pages in before I finally realized what was wrong with Resurrection Impure. It’s one of the books on a list of vampire books I’m working through as part of my genre research (“The 10 Best Vampire Novels Nobody Has Read”).

I had the vague sense that something was off about this book. I noticed the chapters began with random poetry-like interludes that didn’t seem to make any sense. Whose voice is this? What information is being shared here? Why is this passage necessary?

The narrator was head-hopping, that novice-writer error wherein the narrative shifts the point of view from one character to another seemingly at random. One chapter began by telling us clearly what a particular character was thinking and later in the same chapter, killing that character off.

Even when George R. R. Martin kills off main characters, it’s not done in that character’s actual chapter. How could the narrative continue if the point of view was lost?

So what is Point of View (POV)?

In First Person the narrator uses “I” and cannot report what other characters are thinking or feeling unless those characters share that information.

In Third Person Limited the narrator uses “he” and “she” but focuses on one character’s inner thoughts and feelings and expresses the other character’s thoughts and feelings only when they volunteer that information. Otherwise, the POV character may speculate:

Eleanor guessed Pete felt left out and made eye contact with him, smiled, and winked.

The narrator doesn’t say “Pete felt left out” because that would be from Pete’s POV and the story is from Eleanor’s. Instead, the narrator tells us what Eleanor thinks Pete is feeling. The filter of what Eleanor thinks Pete feels is an important tension-building dimension in the story.

A Third Person Omniscient narrator uses “he” and “she” and provides insight to multiple characters’ POV. Inner thoughts and feelings are available to the reader though obscured from other characters.

But even with Third Person Omniscient, POV must be maintained for established periods. Martin uses an entire chapter with the character’s name. Other writers use spacers between passages when they change angles — like a camera changing its viewpoint.

The real problem with Resurrection Impure is that it couldn’t have been workshopped. Discerning readers pick up head-hopping and ask the important questions.

The most frequent question we ask in workshop is “Whose story is this?”

Knowing the answer can enable the writer to nail down the perspective. With Resurrection Impure, I don’t think the author knows whose story this truly is.

Characters must be compelling. The male leads here are, but the only female character is so two-dimensional and puny that Daenerys Targaryen would surely smite her on site.

Having abandoned Resurrection Impure, I’d really like to have my $17.95 back.

Workshop your fiction before you publish it. Get readers who will figure out what’s off about it and help you correct it. Do the work.