Thursday, August 30, 2007

More on Characterization

Yesterday I wrote about creating characters your readers will love...or hate. It really doesn't matter what brilliant storyline you've mapped out, if your readers don't give two hoots about who the conflict is happening to, they won't continue reading. What's a writer to do? Create memorable characters, that's what.

As writers we must keep in mind that each character must evoke a strong emotional response in the reader. Yesterday I wrote that characters must be flawed. We've all met someone who seems too good to be true. Even though common sense tells us this is imposssible, we can't help grinding our teeth at the perceived perfection in this person.

Now you probably think I'm incredibly petty, but come on. I know people, and I like to think I know a little something about human nature. When a woman is never seen in public with a hair out of place or a skuff on her shoe, her husband is incredibly successful and her children are potty trained by two and a half, and to top it all off she can eat what she wants and never gain weight...well, let me tell you, it's pretty easy to dislike this individual even though we know she probably doesn't clean behind her refrigerator either.

Okay, now that we've got that out of the way, I'll go back to the strong emotional response. As you read the above description about the perfect woman, didn't you dislike her just a teensy little bit. You can admit it. I won't tell anyone. If you're being honest, you experienced an emotional response to this woman even though she doesn't exist. Our characters must do the same to readers if we want them to keep reading.

The above forementioned woman could become the sister-in-law in your book who looks down her nose at your heroine. You can always reveal her flaws and insecurities later in the book if you're feeling guilty, but wouldn't she be a fun character to work with?

Or what about a mother-in-law or nosy neighbor? In nearly all my books I have a matronly character, typically an aunt or grandmother or mother, who annoys the socks off the heroine. This character is bossy and condescending and mean spirited. I don't include these characters simply because they are fun to write, which they certainly are.

They're even more fun to write than crazy people.

I include them for a very important reason. Most women can relate to this type of character. We have had a matronly figure in our lives who sometimes comes across as bossy and mean. Naturally I exaggerate these qualities for fiction's sake, but they always evoke a strong emotional response.

Did I mention I have fun doing it?

Have fun with your characters. Draw them so that readers can relate. Most importantly, make them real. A book critic once contacted me and said, "If I find out you had a perfectly normal childhood, I'll be terribly disappointed."

I figure I've done my job well.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What readers want

The last few days I have been talking about what editors and agents want when they look at your manuscript. Let's spend a little time talking about what a reader wants. I wrote down a fantastic quote that will make a great point here, but I was in such a hurry to get it all, I forgot to write who said it. Sorry about that but hopefully you'll still get something out of it.

"I write for the lady on the bus. She isn't my mother so she doesn't have to like what I write. She isn't my friend or my sister or my boss, so she is not obligated under any circumstances to like what I do."

Keeping that in mind, how can we please this reader?

The two questions you never want you reader to ask is:

1. Huh?
2. So what?

To avoid the first question, we must write clearly. I hate reading a book where I cannot see myself as the main character. Call me an egomaniac but I need to feel as if the story is happening to me. If I can't put myself into your setting and feel the wind in my hair and smell the coffee on the stove, I won't be satisfied with the story.

Another "Huh?" moment comes when you try to impress the reader with your brilliant prose. KISS. Keep it Simple Stupid. We know you're smart. You wrote a book, for crying out loud. Must you bore us by cramming your wit and brilliance down our throats. I'm not the dullest tack in the box, but I actually had to get a dictionary out to read the first page of a novel once. This novel wasn't one of the classics or an post-graduate thesis. It was just written by someone who had swallowed a Thesaurus and then vomited the words back onto the page. It didn't take me long to stop reading. I was exhausted and a little insulted. Just tell your story the way only you can.

The "So what?" question answers itself. Coming in at a close second to writing with a unique voice like we discussed yesterday, I believe the second most important ingredient in powerful storytelling is characterization. No matter how brilliant your storyline, if the reader doesn't care about who your conflict is happening to, she isn't going to make it to the end of the book. As writers we must create characters our readers love--or hate.

Create believable characters. People are flawed. No one is completely good or completely bad. Give your villian likable qualities--at least one. Make him be kind to animals or protective of his mother. Your heroine doesn't have to be five feet, seven inches with perfect teeth, flowing blond hair and an IQ of 140 for us to love her. In fact I hate her already.

Make her real. Maybe she can't digest dairy, the color red washes her out, or she thinks Michael Moore is insightful. Give her some flaws your reader can relate to. The reader must experience a strong emotional reaction to your characters and setting or we won't continue reading.

We will discuss strong emotional reactions more next time. Until then, keep writing.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What agents want.

Yesterday I talked about the decision all writers and professionals in the entertainment industry must eventually make. Do I need an agent and when should I look for one? Today I will talk about what agents look for when you decide to send in that genius of prose you've penned.

The one thing I kept hearing over and over again, whether from agent, editor, or publisher, was they were looking for writers who told their story with a unique voice.

Not story. Not mechanics. Not characters. They want a unique voice. Not to say that characterization and story aren't important. They are. But you must have a unique voice that sets your story apart from all the thousands that will be published this year.

By now you are probably asking what exactly is a unique voice? Don't we already have that? Good question. And probably the hardest to answer. Voice is like beauty. Difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it.

There are only so many plotlines and combinations available to a storyteller. King Solomon said it centuries ago. There is nothing new under the sun. Every crime has been committed, every commandment broken, every dream fulfilled...or unfulfilled. Knowing that, how can you possibly write a story that has already been told to death, and still capture the attention of an agent?

That's where unique voice comes in. You must tell your story the way only you can tell it. Have you ever known someone who can tell a good joke? They are funny without even trying. Someone else will tell the same joke, and it bombs. You can fake smart or interesting or clever, but you can't fake funny.

To tell your story with a unique voice doesn't mean it has to be funny. It can be heart wrenching or soul searching or inspiring or tongue-in-cheek. That's for you to decide. What's important is that you make in unique. That's how your writing gets attention.

When I first started writing, I struggled with voice and style. I wasn't sure what either one was, and I certainly didn't know how to develop it. You can't really learn it out of a book. If you could, we would all be funny and charming and the life of the party.

My advice, since this blog post has to end eventually, is to start writing. Tell your story from your heart. Don't try to mimick a prolific writer's style. Tell it the way only you can. It's your story. Don't fake it. Maybe someday aspiring writers will be trying to mimick you.

Until tomorrow, have a wonderful and productive day.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Do you need an agent?

This week I will be recapping what I learned at the Columbus Writers' Conference in Columbus, OH which was held Aug 24-25th. First off, let me say I had a great time talking with people who also hear voices in their heads and aren't ashamed to admit it. If you have never been to this conference, you should take the time to attend. It's held late summer every year at the Fawcett Conference Center on the Ohio State University Campus. Easy to find and navigate. Hope to see you there next year.

That's enough of a plug. Now on to what I learned.

Most attendees come to a writers' conference to meet and pitch their ideas to editors and agents. Unless you have an "in" at a big New York City house--and face it who among us does--you can only get the attention of these people at a conference.

As soon as people find out you are a published author, their next question is almost invariably, "How did you find your agent?"

I didn't. I don't have one. It's not that I have anything against agents. I just happened to find a royalty publisher without the use of an agent, and have not seen a need to hire one since. My first class was held by a New York agent, Paige Wheeler. At the end of the class, I asked why a person who had been published without an agent would need one now.

She said a writer should never try to negotiate a contract without an agent. An agent acts as a buffer between the writer and publisher or the writer and editor if the writer ever disagrees with editing changes and is uncomfortable going directly to the editor. An agent can negotiate a bigger advance and handle movie deals, foreign rights, and all the other stuff that comes with getting your book onto the bookstore shelves.

I am currently working with a small press, TsabaHouse. I am completely comfortable directly contacting the people within the publishing house, including the editor if and when a problem arises. And yes, we have had some creative differences when it come to rewrites. I hired someone to go over my contract and explain what I didn't know, which was almost all of it.

Someone asked near the end of the conference if I had changed my mind about agents. I never had a problem with agents. For me, it's just that the need hasn't arisen at this time. If I ever decide to pitch a book to a publishing house who will not work with unagented authors, then yes, I will look for an agent. If I am ever approached by a movie company about one of my books or when I get too prolific and too busy traveling and writing that I can't handle the details of my career, I will gladly turn it all over to an agent.

If you want to approach publishers through an agent, then you should definitely find a good one. But I am living proof that an unagented author can find a royalty publisher. If you don't have an agent and you are satisfied working with a small press where you are a big fish in a small pond, don't despair. You can still find a publisher without an agent. That window is getting narrower all the time and will someday close completely. But it can still happen.

That's what makes this such an exciting business.

Until tomorrow,

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Columbus Writers' Conference

Got home yesterday from the Columbus Writers Conference in Columbus, OH. Lots of fun and plenty to learn close to home.

I sat down to lunch on Friday with a presenter from Erie, PA, who I didn't know was a presenter at the time. We were talking about writing (what else?) and I mentioned that I have been thinking of someday writing a book on (what else?) writing. I told him and everyone at the table how much I love to speak at workshops and libraries. I have a great time doing it and get lots of positive feedback. One thing led to another and he told me how to contact the coordinator about doing a workshop at the conference. If things work out, I may be a presenter at a future conference. I'll let you know how that goes.

Tomorrow, I'm beginning a series of the knowledge I brought home from the conference. Besides my cold, that is. At this moment I'm a little unsteady with cold medicine running through my veins.

Join me Monday for a recap of classes offered and what to expect at a writers conference.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

You can write a novel!

Someone said the other day that he had given up the idea of tackling a novel. He just didn't have enough material for such an intimidating project. He preferred short stories. But alas, there isn't much market for those. Unless you are an established writer and publishers are clamoring for the notes you jot down on the back of a napkin, it isn't likely you'll publish a collection of short stories.

What to do?

The person went on to say he has written many humorous short stories and vignettes about a doctor who has a fascination for moose. (Or is it mooses?) While rereading them, he was laughing and getting all sorts of ideas for more stories. As soon as I read that I knew he had his novel. It was just disguised as a bunch of short stories.

These vignettes could become scenes and the backbone for a wonderful novel...or better yet, a series of novels. I started getting ideas for this dashing, single doctor in a small Canadian or Alaskan town myself. I made up the last part. I don't know anything about his character. But see how the mere suggestions sparks more and more ideas.

Don't be overwhelmed by the thought of a novel. People ask me all the time how I can come up with 100,000 words about any topic. Being long winded and a person who loves to know more and more about any subject, it isn't that hard. If you are a naturally nosy person who is always asking questions, you have a novel inside you.

Don't be afraid to let it out.

Let's pretend you have also written several short stories. They may be totally unrelated. Short stories are great practice for your novel. I suggest you start with them first. But anyway, read through those short stories. Is there one that stands out from the rest? Does it beg you to ask: What next? Who is this character? Can he carry a novel? Are the setting and minor characters interesting enough to warrant further investigation?

One of those short stories could be the beginning of your novel. Don't let the notion overwhelm you? Maybe there isn't a novel in you. But maybe, just maybe, and this is the exciting part, the next great novel is waiting just below your subconscious for a spark of an idea to release it into the world.

Go crazy!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Getting ready for the Columbus Writers' Conference

Friday, August 24th, I am on my way to the Columbus Writers' Conference in Columbus, OH. This is my first big conference. To prepare I have immersed myself in middle grade fiction, something I hope to successfully write and publish someday soon. My dream is to write books like the ones I loved when I was a kid.

Well, almost like those books. You see, I grew up way, way back when the boys were still the heros of every story and the girls were nothing more than nosy sisters, distractions, or just plain nuisances. It annoyed the socks off me. I wanted to change the world. With very little help from me, the world has changed, and girls have progressed beyond nosy sisters and know-it-all's. I still want to write these stories---a whole series of them where the girl solves the mystery and takes care of herself.

I signed up late for the conference so I did not get an appointment with Stacey Barney, an editor at Putnam Books for Young Readers. Note to self: sign up early next time. But I want to be prepared in case an opportunity arises to tell someone about my middle-grade mystery.

Who am I kidding? It's a writers' conference. Everyone will be sharing stories, ideas, and inspiration at every turn.

The first lesson a writer learns is to know the market, so I'm reading the competition this week. A notable selection I just finished was The Wedding Planner's Daughter by Coleen Murtagh Paratore. What a lovely book! Much to my delight, I have discovered Willa, the heroine, is now the star of her own series. Even when the research is over, I want to find out what happens next. If you have a young lady in your life or just want to see how to write middle-grade fiction well, don't miss this book. It's a smart, funny treasure that reminds you how magical and terrible it is to be 12-years-old.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Perfect Title

Some titles are perfect. They stay with us forever. We can remember when we watched the movie or read the book. Even if the plot eludes us over time, we always remember a great title. GONE WITH THE WIND. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. THE YEARLING. Nothing else needs to be said.

I love titles taken from scripture like THE SUN ALSO RISES or from song titles or lyrics like LET ME CALL YOU SWEETHEART or STREAMS OF MERCY.

But how does a writer find the perfect title that teases the reader into picking up the book and not setting it down until they've reached the last page? What's the process?

Humorous titles are always a good bet. DEATH OF A GARAGE SALE NEWBIE by SHARON DUNN just begs to be read. Familiar titles like FOUR TO SCORE or LEAN MEAN THIRTEEN of the Stefanie Plum series by JANET EVONAVICH are impossible to mix up with anything else.

I am particularly fond of one word titles. ROBIN COOK is a master at these. Who could forget COMA or CRITICAL. This isn't always an accurate depiction of the storyline. I recently read SHOCK by Mr. COOK and the title had nothing to do with the book. It was a medical thriller as I'm sure you deduced. And it was shocking. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it to everyone. But I kept wondering when someone would go into SHOCK. It never came up. I was a tad disappointed in whoever named the book, but it was still fantastic.

I'm getting off track here. I'm supposed to be figuring out where great titles come from. You see, I just sent in my latest work to my publisher. This story will be included in a compilation with romance writer Molly Noble Bull. The stories share a common theme and will enhance one another. The only problem is, the title must do the same.

Everyone at TsabaHouse is brainstorming tonight to come up with ideas that let the reading public know what they're getting in two words of less. No easy feat. Especially when you have several creative people with their own ideas of the message to convey throwing their two cents in on the issue.

Hopefully this still untitled book will be available in a bookstore near you next summer. You are in for a treat, dear reader. Let's just hope by then we have settled on a suitable, and more importantly, a memorable title.

I'll keep you posted.


Friday, August 10, 2007

Beginning a New Project

The only thing more exciting than putting my latest book in the mail, which I did Friday, is starting the next one. Exciting and terrifying all at the same time. So much so that I'm hesitant to open a new document. Nothing more intimidating than a blinking cursor.

But at this moment I am terribly psyched. The only thing stopping me from opening that document is the desire to tell you first what has me so anxious to get started. Last week in church I got my new book. Okay, not the whole book. That would be insane. People say that all the time. "God gave me this book to write."

Yes, God puts goals and missions and projects in our hearts, but there is still plenty of blood, sweat, and tears that go into getting that message onto the page. If you don't believe me, you've probably never written a book.

Our pastor told us to turn to the 41st Psalm. When I turned to the 41st one, I read a few verses backward into Psalm 40. And there it was in black and white. Psalm 40:10. "I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation: I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great congregation."

I have been looking for a storyline for a character I created in Book 3 of my Jenna's Creek series. I wasn't sure if it was God speaking to me through the sermon or if it was just me not paying attention. Then the pastor said something else that confirmed that verse was for me. Mind you, our sermon was not on verse 10.

The message was on patience taken from verses 1-3 of Psalm 40. The pastor misspoke when he sent us to Psalm 41. But if he hadn't sent us to 41, I might not have read as far into 40 to get to verse 10.

Are you getting any of this? Can you see why I'm excited about starting this book! Verse 3 of Psalm 40 even reconfirms what I got from verse 10 and the pastor's comment that confirmed verse 10.

Just because I believe God has laid this in my heart, doesn't mean I think God will do all the work. Far from it. But God has given me a nugget tonight--a germ of an idea and something to build Book 4 & 5 of the series on. Yes, I actually got the last two books of the series out of Psalm 40.

Thank you, Lord for your faithfulness and the calling You have laid in my heart. Let me be worthy to bring it to fruition.

Now, to open that blank document.


Monday, August 06, 2007

Suzanne Woods Fisher

Today I am excited to interview writer Suzanne Woods Fisher.
Suzanne is a contributing editor for Christian Parenting Today magazine. Her work has appeared in Today’s Christian Woman, Worldwide Challenge, ParentLife, Marriage Partnership, among others. She’s also contributed to five non-fiction books, including Chicken Soup for the Soul and Cup of Comfort.

Suzanne’s debut novel, Copper Star, hit a bestseller list within a few weeks of release. It is a World War II love story based on true events. Louisa, a young Resistance Worker is smuggled out of Germany by theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and ends up in a dusty copper mining town in Arizona to wait out the war. Unable to leave her resistance skills behind, Louisa uncovers a mystery that leads right back to Germany.

The sequel to Copper Star has already been contracted and its film rights are under consideration by a major motion picture studio. Copper Star is available through Amazon, B&, any major bookseller, and through Suzanne’s website at:

Married with four children, Suzanne lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and tries to write as much as she can, in between caring for her dad with Alzheimer’s, who lives directly across the street (!) and a steady stream of puppies that she raises for Guide Dogs for the Blind.

Welcome, Suzanne. Thank you for joining me here at Joy in the Journey. Can you tell all of us how you got started? How mapped out is your storyline?
I start with an idea, but try to be open to changes as I research the era or discover new connections…so, I don’t have a story all buttoned up before I start. I used to think that it was necessary to have the entire story planned out before I could start to write fiction…and found that it was paralyzing! I didn’t even try! It’s much easier, at least for me, to just start with an idea, stay with it, be open to new ideas, twists and turns of the plot.

What have you found to be the biggest misconception about being an author?
I have found that promoting my books is half (maybe even more than half) of the work of being an author. Connecting with people is wonderful—I love that part. But I didn’t realize how much marketing belongs to the author—any author! (Well, maybe not J. K. Rowling.)

Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
A little of both. I start with an idea of a character, and add to him/her some quirks from people I know who resemble him/her.

Out of all the characters that you've written, who is your favorite and why?
I really like my main character in Copper Star, Louisa, the young resistance worker smuggled out of Germany by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. She’s funny, determined, smart… and flawed. And she knows it! She has an ability not to take herself too seriously.

What would you want readers to take away from your books?
What a relationship with God looks like, inside out.

Look for Copper Star at a bookseller near you or online. Learn more about Suzanne and her writing at