Monday, September 26, 2016

What Makes Characters UNlikable... and What Doesn't

With some authors, the plot line of a story comes first. What's going to happen? What is at stake? How will it all be resolved?

With me, characters come first. Something happens to someone. Someone has a great deal at stake. Someone must fight to get what they want.

Who is that someone?

For me, the "someone" doing the "something" matters a lot more than whatever the "something" may be. I have to like the characters in the story or, at the very least, find them interesting. There are many ways to kill my interest in a character.

I hate whiny characters, in real life and in fiction. Whining is a habit, not an endearing character trait. There is a reason why I trained my children out of this habit at a young age--I didn't want to hear it. Nobody likes to listen to a whiner, so if a character has this unpleasant habit, the writer better have a good reason for it. And never let that character be the main character! The main character may have reason to complain, but he or she should be more focused on getting things done rather than bewailing the way things are.

I also dislike characters who are in complete control of everything. Their life, their jobs, their emotions, even their hair, is always perfectly in order and runs smoothly. Now before everyone jumps on me and says, "Hey, what about...?" Yes, I know, it seems that my character, Sheriff Rick Sutton, has it all together, BUT... yes, if you've read "At the Crossroad", you know it's all a facade to hide a lot of pain. He's not a robot; he's human and he's trying to protect himself. A lot of people can relate to that.

It's easy to understand why boring characters can be unlikable. We all have met someone who goes on and on and on about everything and nothing at all. A boring person is one who focuses almost exclusively on him or herself. While it's necessary to know things about a character, focusing solely on that one character--especially a character focusing on himself--and nothing else, makes for a story that is very easy to put down and walk away from... especially since most of us who come into contact with boring people feel trapped and unable to walk away.

I really dislike villains who have no reason for being a villain other than... well, the hero needs someone to fight. All villains, like heroes, have a goal and it has to mean enough to them to make it worth their time and effort to achieve it. True, it's very likely not a good goal--after all, they are the villains--but it has to mean something to them, something important.

What creates an interesting character is that they remind us of real people, of ourselves, even. Real people have real reasons for the way they act. We can't always delve deeply into the lives of the people we interact with in the real world, but a writer can and should do that with the characters in a story. A character with a motivation rings true, is relatable, even if not likable, and makes a story more interesting.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Pantser vs. Plotter? In Writing and in Real Life

Before I go any further, let me clarify what I'm talking about, since this seems to be a question that makes sense mostly to writers.

"Plotter" is pretty easy to decipher--it's someone who plots out their stories before they begin to write. Details, such as the characters' names, eye color, backstories, motivations, and their exact roles in the story are carefully noted. Timelines are mapped out to the exact minute (especially in murder mysteries) and charts are drawn up to show exactly what direction the story will take, including the "unexpected" twists and turns.

"Pantser" is short for "flying by the seat of your pants"--someone who just sits down, with only an idea for a story in their mind, and starts writing. They might know who the characters are, what they look like, and why they do what they do, but the details will be ironed out as the story gets down on paper. They know what the story is about and what's going to happen, but it might take a 38-hour day in the first draft to tell it (that's what editing is for, right?)

My style of writing falls somewhere in between. Of course, I have to know who  my characters are and what's going to happen in the story, but plotting a novel down to its every detail would drain me of energy and creativity. I'm not a recklessly impulsive person in real life--I do like to think ahead--but when it comes to having fun, I like to give myself a little freedom to "wing it". And writing is fun!

My husband and I are planning a long weekend getaway in a few weeks. I have often said that, for me, it's not a vacation if I have to look at my watch. Having an itinerary for every moment of a vacation seems to suck the joy and excitement out of the experience. If a vacation is meant to give me a chance to relax and recharge, then being on a schedule won't help. However, there are times when it's important to think ahead to what one might want to do on vacation. Certain things--a train ride, a whale watching tour, a special dinner event--do require planning because they are being arranged by someone who isn't on one's particular schedule. It's possible to take a chance and go on vacation and just hope everything falls into place--tickets won't be sold out, reservations aren't required, etc. If you don't really have your heart set on doing this particular activity, that won't be a problem. But if you do, then some planning is sure to be involved.

Just like we have planned out a grape-picking party at an estate vineyard, a lunch time train ride, and a VIP tasting at a winery during our long weekend, a writer has to plan key events, elements, and situations in a book. The fun, unplanned things can connect those points and eventually, they will all make sense and flow into one another to make a story work (with a lot of editing to take care of those 38-hour days!)

In a way, an author is like a cruise director. We have a lot of planned activities and interesting people to meet, but not all of them necessarily contribute to the story. So take some "planned spontaneity" and enjoy the unexpected. It makes for a better story and vacation!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Why do you write Murder Mysteries? A guest post by Marilyn Meredith

Today I'm hosting fellow Oak Tree Press author, Marilyn Meredith, author of the Rocky Bluff P.D. and the Deputy Tempe Crabtree mystery series. She is set to release the 15th book in her Deputy Tempe Crabtree series, "Seldom Traveled", and she graciously slowed down long enough to sit on the Back Deck and talk about why she writes murder mysteries and to tell you about a contest she is sponsoring for readers who comment on her posts:

My host, Amy, posed this question as it’s one she gets asked a lot. I haven’t been asked that much, but I think the difference is, Amy is young and appears to be sweet. (And she is.) I’m old, and probably appear a bit more on the grumpy side, the type of person who might like dipping into the darker side of life.

Since that’s not really the right answer, I’ll give you my motivation for writing murder mysteries.
Our world today is full of evil—people are killing one another for all sorts of reasons. Some of the bad guys get caught and are killed or punished, but some get away with what they’ve done.

When I’m writing a murder mystery I know from the start that my villain will be caught, no if, ands, or buts! This is one place I know justice will be done, because I’m in control.

Another reason I write murder mysteries is I like the puzzle. Yes, it’s a puzzle for me too because though I think I know who the murderer is from the beginning, sometimes as I’m writing, I know I’ve chosen wrong. When that happens, it means a bit of rewriting to make sure it will all make sense to the reader.

I can understand why people might ask the above question—it might have a hidden meaning, like why don’t you write sweet romances instead? (Or whatever reading genre they prefer.) When you think about it, that question is better than someone asking you where the restroom is, something that happens a lot in a book store signing.

No matter what anyone might think, I’ll continue to write (and read) murder mysteries until I’m no longer able and I hope that’s a long, long time from now.


Seldom Traveled Blurb:
The tranquility of the mountain community of Bear Creek is disrupted by a runaway fugitive, a vicious murderer, and a raging forest fire. Deputy Tempe Crabtree is threatened by all three.

Marilyn Meredith’s Bio:
Marilyn has had so many books published, she’s lost track of the count, but it’s getting near 40. She lives in a community similar to the fictional mountain town of Bear Creek, the big difference being that Bear Creek is a thousand feet higher in the mountains. She is a member of Mystery Writers of American, three chapters of Sisters in Crime, and is a board member of Public Safety Writers of America.

New contest:

Winners will be randomly picked from those leaving the most comments on the blog posts. Each winner can choose one of the earlier books in the series as either a print book or e-book.

You can find me here tomorrow:

Monday, August 29, 2016

Author Branding--A Way to Market Books

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to attend a meeting of the El Paso Writers' League and got to hear a talk on marketing by League treasurer, Robyn Gold (who writes under the pen name R. S. Dabney--her first book, "The Soul Mender", was released in May.) In addition to talking about how to effectively utilize social media to market your books, she also talked about creating your author brand.

Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I had done this without consciously deciding to do so.

An author brand is something that marks an author's books as being unique to that particular author. You can look at a book's cover and immediately recognize that the book was written by a certain author or belongs in a certain series. My author brand, unique to my Black Horse Campground series, is the black horse logo that appears on all my book covers and the tag line "A Black Horse Campground mystery". If you write a series, this is a great marketing tool to help fix your series in the minds of readers and also to set the series apart from other books or series you might write. A great example of this is OTP's own, Marilyn Meredith, who writes two different series. Her Rocky Bluff P.D. series, published by Oak Tree, features a police badge on every cover and distinguishes it from her other series.

Another way to brand your books is to have a recurring title tag. Radine Trees Nehring writes a series in which every title contains the words "to die for". Dac Crossley's "Texas Ranger" series includes--you guessed it--the words "Texas Ranger" in each title. The tag line can be either part of the title or a subtitle to identify the series, such as my titles (example: "End of the Road: A Black Horse Campground Mystery")

There are other ways to brand your books whether they go in a series or not. Using the same font for every title, the same color scheme, or the same layout for the cover can also identify your books as belonging to a series or to the same author. Mary Montague Sikes does this with her landmark lodgings series. Holli Castillo combines a number of these elements in her covers--recurring font, black and white scheme, and the word "justice" combined with Cajun recipe names.

With so many books in the market and the possibility of so many similar titles (and author names!), developing a unique author brand to distinguish your books from others is a good idea to keep in mind, whether you write a series or not. When you find your fans and reading audience, make it easy for them to find you!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Going for the Gold--Finding Your Focus as a Writer

Recently there has been a new meme circulating on Facebook showing US gold medal-winning swimmer, Michael Phelps, in the lead during a race, looking straight ahead at the finish line. In the next lane is the silver medalist with his head turned, watching Phelps. The meme reads, "Winners focus on winning. Losers focus on winners."

While calling the second place finalist a "loser" might seem a bit harsh, it illustrates perfectly what some writers feel when their books aren't selling well or a less than stellar review pops up on their amazon page. It's heartbreaking to see a book that isn't well-written showing up in the Top 100 list on amazon while your own languishes somewhere in the millions.

As writers, it's essential for us to read, not only in order to keep learning, but to give ourselves a break. The problem is, it's hard for us to keep the reader's opinion from being tainted by our experience as a writer... and vice versa. I have a hard time reading a book that is rife with grammatical errors, with typos, with cardboard characters and stilted dialogue, with poor writing. It's even harder when one downloads the book and finds out the reason why it was free.

What is easy, unfortunately, is to fall into the habit of comparing those authors' work and rankings and sales with our own. Their books are always ranked in the thousands, not millions... like mine. Their book has seventy-eight five-star reviews, not twenty total reviews... like mine. And their book is nowhere near as good as mine.

The point we have to remember is this: So what? So what if their book is full of mistakes and is poorly constructed? So what if they have ten times as many reviews as our books do? So what if their book is ranked in the Top 100? So what if their book is just another tired, done-to-death, latest fad sub-genre, complete with recycled storyline and setting? It's not our book. We have no control over the content or (brace yourself) how other people perceive it. Just like we can't control how people perceive OUR OWN work.

What we can control is how much energy we focus on OUR OWN work instead of someone else's. Is our work the very best it can be? Are we investing energy in promoting our work (that's promoting OUR work, not denigrating someone else's, no matter how badly we feel we must warn the world about it)? And most importantly, are we wasting energy that would better be put to use writing our next book?

Focus on the finish line. Focus on the gold. Focus on making your own work worthy of it. And don't waste energy on the people in the "other lane". Save that energy for your own work... and celebrating when you win!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Where Do You Get Your Story Ideas? Would You Believe... Walmart?

It sounds like a snarky response, but it's amazing the story ideas you can gain from observing people while they shop... and sneaking a peek at what's in their shopping carts.

I've said before that working in retail has many benefits for a writer. The main one, of course, is being able to meet and interact with people that wouldn't normally cross my path. But there are days when actual interaction--making eye contact and speaking to people--is not part of the plan (the plan being picking up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread and getting out of the store at the end of my shift with killing myself or anyone else!) That's when I do most of my story idea gathering in the check out line (where, no matter the time of day, I will ALWAYS have a lot of time to spend!)

This past week, I saw the following stories in shopping carts:

A woman with a basket loaded with hamburgers, hot dogs, chips, beer, sodas, and all the fixings and extras for a big gathering. It wasn't a holiday weekend, so I bet on a family reunion or some family party. Then I see the giant bottle of Tylenol and the economy-sized bottle of antacids. They pair perfectly with the "death row" expression on her face. There's a story there. You can bet it's family drama... especially given the fact that her purchase could easily fill two carts, but she's alone so she manages to make do with one cart.

A young woman, very attractive, unloads a basket that contains--expensive nail polish (the kind that costs about $13 a bottle) and a new manicure set; an entire celebrity name-brand makeup set; expensive body wash and lotion; expensive shampoo; and a new pair of lacy thong panties and matching bra. She stops herself from biting her nails as she watches the total climb. It seems apparent that she's used to buying the most economical store brands, but she wants to impress someone. A real-life Cinderella who has to be her own fairy godmother...?

A young man with a toddler girl in the cart seat and another baby in the carrier he has strapped on stares helplessly at the assortment of baby food jars and formula and diapers in his basket. The only "grown up" food in the basket is pasta and frozen pizza. He looks shell-shocked. The little girl is wearing mismatched clothing and her ponytails are sloppy and she softly whines, "I want Mommy." Where's Mommy? The only thing certain is that her absence is new and raw... though it's unclear whether she chose to be gone or not.

Of course, not every cart has a story. Sometimes people just need stuff. At least, that's what I was hoping when I saw the lady with a giant box of cat litter, a toilet plunger, and four bottles of Crown Royal in her basket....
Shop at your own risk when there is a writer around....

Monday, August 1, 2016

Recharging the Batteries

I've often said that there is no such thing as "writer's block". Just like I can't call in to the "real jobs" and say, "I'm not coming in today because I have cake decorator's/vino slinger's block," just because I don't FEEL like doing the job, doesn't mean I can't actually DO the job.

Of course, there is a difference. While I might not feel like doing the real jobs, just showing up and doing them earns me a paycheck. Cakes get decorated (note--there really isn't a lot of room for creativity at a supermarket bakery. Just follow the design pattern and anyone with a modicum of skill in handling an icing bag can decorate a cake.) Wine gets poured and served (bartenders are required to know how to paste on a "genuine" smile and keep our true feelings in check) and sold.

After writing five books in my Black Horse Campground series, some people think I have nothing else to write. If anything, I have even MORE stories to tell... so many that it can be overwhelming at times. And tiring. And maybe just a little intimidating. It can create a bottleneck in the writer's mind and it seems that nothing can get through onto the page.

When it comes to writing, just "showing up" doesn't cut it. Just putting words down on paper, or a screen, isn't enough. The words should make sense, should tell a story, should make a point. And they should entertain or at least engage the reader. That's where a writer suddenly develops what is commonly called "writer's block"--because they can't seem to write anything worth reading, therefore they think they can't or shouldn't write.

The beauty of writing is that it doesn't have to be done right the first time. Editing and rewriting are the master tools of  writing. So when the dreaded "writer's block" creeps up, I tell myself that I can't call out from the job. Write something. Anything. It can be fixed later. Just like a vacation away from the "real jobs" helps me recharge the batteries to keep on going, so can reading (for fun and for work--since I read fiction for reviews and evaluations) and other creative endeavors recharge the batteries for writing.

I'm just now taking my writing out of the charger and starting with a fresh pack of energy to go on with my series. Let's do this!