Characters with No Arc?

Since the release of our Character Trait Thesaurus books almost a year ago, Angela and I have gone kind of nuts with the characterization posts. We just learned so much in the writing of these books, and we wanted to share some of that character building info with you guys.

Most of what we’ve written has to do with characters and their arcs—topics like The Four Types of Character Flaws, Using Quirks to Build Personality, Understanding Character Wounds, and The Duality of Character Traits. Angela and I (and most of the rest of the world) are suckers for a character with a good arc. We want to see a character struggle, fall, recognize her fatal flaw, and fight to overcome it in order to finally achieve happiness and peace. This is the textbook story that can be told a million different ways with a million different characters. When done well, it resonates with readers.

But one thing we haven’t talked about is the character with no arc. No change over time. No personal growth. You know who I’m talking about: Indiana Jones, James Bond, Ellen Ripley (in the first Alien movie), and the original Willy Wonka (just say no to creepy Johnny Depp). Clearly, people respond to these characters, or they wouldn’t appear in so many movies.

But how does that work, exactly?

K.M. WeilandWell, I was thrilled to open my inbox yesterday and find that K.M. Weiland has addressed THIS VERY ISSUE. So rather than try and reinvent the wheel, I’m pointing you to the post at Katie’s blog, where you can learn not only how to effectively write an arc-less character but you’ll find a ton of other writing tips, too.

WANaAnd while I’m here, let me also remind everyone that Angela and I are prepping for a new webinar called The Marketing Marriage: Creative Social Media Solutions to Help Your Book Event Get Noticed. It’s happening online October 13th at 8:00 EST. If you’re interested in learning more about how to put together a book event that will get people’s attention, click on the link above for more info. Can’t make the date? No problem! Register, and you can watch the recording when it’s convenient for you. 

Posted in Characters | 1 Comment

5 Steps To Find Your Book’s Ideal Audience

There’s nothing quite like seeing a book with your name on it. The beautiful cover, the weight of it in your hands, the pages of your creativity bundled into a package for readers to enjoy. It sits o the shelf–maybe a physical one, perhaps a virtual one–but it is there, mingling with other books, rubbing spines with both fresh and established voices alike.

And there it will sit, waiting to be noticed..among not hundreds, not thousands, but a virtual tsunami of books that grows larger each day. Sure, family and friends will buy your book, and perhaps some of your supporters and connections online, too. But unless you do something, it will eventually fade into obscurity, never having the chance to break out and be discovered by the exact people looking to read a book just like yours.

The number one failing of authors (provided they have a well edited, quality book) is an inability to connect with their exact audience.

AudienceTraditionally published or self-published, in this competitive market, authors must actively find readers or risk their book dying on the shelf. Many fiction authors try hard, but often miss the mark as far as targeting an audience (promoting too narrowly for example, say only to other writers). Some unfortunately go the spam route, misusing social media to shout constantly about their book, sales, 5 star reviews and even sending “check out my book + LINK” messages to followers. This type of promo becomes “White Noise,” which most ignore. In some cases, people become so annoyed, rather than this strategy pulling new readers in, it pushes them away.

So How Does An Author Find Their Ideal Audience?

1) Know What Makes Your Book Special

While a book’s genre (and sub-genres) help to narrow reader interest, this is only the start of your journey to finding your ideal audience. A Fantasy enthusiast will not be interested in reading ALL types of Fantasy, right? So the first step is defining what about your book makes it stand out from all the other novels like yours. Move beyond just genre. What themes or elements are unique about your book? What are the strongest qualities about your hero or heroine that make them likeable? What concept makes your book pop?

Is your fantasy about a race of nomadic humans who are really shape shifting dragons, but over the generations, have forgotten what they are? Or, does your book have a hero who must solve codes and cyphers to uncover an astrological prophesy? Maybe it involves unusual magical travel…wizards that have discovered they can bottle the scents associated with a location and when a subject inhales it, he travels to that place. Whatever it is, this “special element” is a big part of what makes your book unique, and what will draw readers to your type of story and characters.

2) Make a List of Groups that Tie into this Element

Figured out what makes your book stand out from all the others like it? Awesome. Now it’s time to find out what interests people who think X is compelling, because that’s what’s special about your book.

Let’s take one of my examples. Say your book is the Dragon Fantasy concept above. A book featuring dragons may appeal to people who collect dragon figurines, read dragon-centric books, play dragon fantasy games, create dragon artwork, fashion dragon jewellery, blog about dragons, go to dragon-themed movies, visit forums that discuss dragon culture, etc. Google has 38 pages for “dragon lovers.” In less than a minute, I found a Dragon Museum, Dragon Decor Designs and a ton of forums, facebook groups, and the like.  Using Twitter Search, I discovered there is a #Dragon hashtag that brings up people, products and discussions about dragons. All of these people have the potential to be your exact reading audience, especially those who wish dragons were real, but are hiding their true forms. Or Fantasy readers interested in shape shifters and nomadic cultures.

(Don’t forget to look around locally, too. There may be groups, events and activities that tie into your book’s special concept in your own backyard.)

3) Identify Possible Influencers and Opportunities

Now within this glorious pool of Dragondom, there will be influencers: people who blog about all things dragons that really draw an audience, or active forums that discuss the latest dragon films and books. Perhaps gaming communities or even Facebook or Goodreads groups that draw a crowd. All of these help dragon enthusiasts discuss the thing they all love.

Check some of these places out to see if they might be a home for you too. After all, if what makes your book special is the shape-shifting dragon element, I’m going to assume you have a strong interest in dragons, right? Surely you have some things to talk about, links to share, books to recommend, etc. We write what we love, and so we should love to talk about what we write.

You want to find several groups or blogs that offer content to their readers that would also appeal to your readers. See who is discussing dragons on the web. Is there a Twitter Chat about dragons? Also look for people who create tangible goods for dragon lovers (artists, designers, etc.)  These are people you want to try and connect with, because opportunities might exist down the road for some cross promotion. Don’t forget other authors with books like yours. Make friends, tweet links to their blog and book. They will notice and most reciprocate, meaning your book might get noticed by their audience.

4) Connect and Engage

Hurray! We have found a slew of blogs, websites, forums and people who are into dragons! Time to join up, follow and send messages about our book, right?

Sorry, that’s not how it works.

Finding out who your audience might be is one thing, but actually (hopefully) turning them into your audience is another. To do that, you need to connect. Interact. Join conversations going on about dragons. Discuss your own collection, the books you read, the movies you watch. Talk to people, find out more about them. Talk about life. Ask questions. Be genuine. Add to the conversation, supply links to things you think others will find interesting about dragons. Build relationships.

Yes, this takes time. It’s work, but if your heart is into it, it’s fun too. In time you will see that these relationships are worth far more than a handful of sales generated from  spam promo. Why? Because when you need help, you can ask. Maybe you need reviewers, or have a book launch coming up and need people to spread the word. These individuals who you have invested your time in will often be the most enthusiastic about helping you gain visibility. They become not just supporters, but if we are lucky, fans.

5) Create Book Events to Draw in Your Reading Audience

One of the best ways to gain visibility is to host a big book event online. Thinking very hard about who your exact audience is, and what they would find interesting or entertaining is the key to drawing the right crowd to your event. Online book events like a book launch are the one time when people expect us to shout about our new book from the rooftops. We can build buzz and flash our cover and blurbs, and draw interest. Events are excellent ways to get your book noticed by the right people!

But the trick is to create an event that utilizes Social Media well, and draws the attention of the right people: people most suited to enjoy our book. Unfortunately this has been made harder because of all the “White Noise” of online promotion out there. So, the task is up to us to WOW people enough that they take notice, and don’t dismiss the event as more “book promotion.”

When you create your event, keep your theme or special element in mind. Build around it. Could you do a dragon treasure hunt across many different blogs using street team members? Perhaps add a shape shifting element where participants follow clues to figure out which street team member is human and which is a dragon, so they can find the hoard (giveaway prize) on someone’s blog?  Something else? You decide!

I hope these tips help!

  *  *   * * *   *  *

WANaHEADS UP!

If you are interested in learning how to promote better during a Book Launch or Book Sale type event, Becca and I are running a special marketing webinar on October 13th at 8:00-9:30 EST called The Marketing Marriage: Creative Social Media Solutions to Help Your Book Event Get Noticed.

Becca and I have run many successful events that have generated thousands of visitors, huge visibility and strong sales. In this webinar we will show you how to create your own book event that attracts attention, engages your audience, and rises it above Promo White Noise. It’s not just about getting eyes on your book, it’s about the RIGHT eyes.

Can’t make the webinar date? No worries, and no risk to you. Sign up and get the recording to watch at your leisure. Follow this link for more information.

How have you found your readers? Any tips to share? Post them below!

 

Image 1: OpenClips @ Pixabay

Posted in Buying Books, Marketing, Promotion, Publishing and Self Publishing, Social Networking, The Business of Writing, Uncategorized | 22 Comments

Emotional Description: 3 Common Problems with Show & Tell

Writing compelling emotional moments is the lifeblood of any story and the key to building a relationship between characters and readers. Yet steering clear of the show-don’t-tell pitfalls requires practice and skill. I’m reposting this from where it originally appeared at Romance University to shed light on three scenarios that challenge writers as they search for the right balance of emotional description.

Telling

Telling is a big issue, especially when writers are still getting to know their characters. Often they do not yet have enough insight into the hero’s personality and their motivation to really be able to describe how they feel in a unique way. Instead of using a vivid and authentic mix of body language, thoughts, dialogue and visceral sensations, writers convey emotion  in broad, telling strokes:

EXAMPLE:

Bill had to steel himself emotionally before entering the church. He’d managed to avoid his family for seven years, but his father’s funeral wasn’t something he could blow off. Anger and jealousy welled inside him as he thought of his two older brothers, the ones who always impressed Dad by being just like him: athletic, manly, hard. Now he would have to face them, and hear once again how he was a failure, a disappointment, an abomination that should have done the world a favor and hung himself from the Jackson family tree.

What’s wrong with this passage?

While the above alludes to an unhealthy relationship between brothers and conveys that Bill is the family misfit, the emotions are TOLD to the reader.

Bill had to steel himself emotionally… What does that look like? Does he sneak a slug of whiskey in his car before going in? Shuffle around on the church step, tugging at his starched cuffs?  Something else? With emotion, the reader should always get a clear image of how the character is expressing their feelings.

Anger and jealousy welled inside him… This again is telling, simply by naming the emotions. What does that anger and jealousy feel like? Is his pulse throbbing so loud he can barely think? Are his thoughts boiling with brotherly slurs that show his jealousy: dad’s golden children, his perfect prodigy, etc. Does his chest feel stuffed full of broken glass, and with each thrum of the church organ, the pain drives itself deeper?

Showing and Telling

Another common snag is showing the character’s feelings (thoughts, actions, body language, visceral sensations, etc.) but then adding some telling just to make sure the reader ‘got it.’ This often happens when a writer doesn’t have confidence in their own abilities to get emotion across to the reader, or they question whether they’ve shown the character’s feelings strongly enough for the situation.

 EXAMPLE:

Dean Harlow finally called Tammy’s name and Lacy’s breath hitched. Her daughter crossed the stage in her rich purple robe, smiling and thrusting her arm out for the customary handshake. Warmth blurred Lacy’s vision and she swiped at the tears, unwilling to miss a second of the graduation ceremony. Her calloused fingers scraped beneath her eyelids, a reminder of long hours at the laundry, all to ensure Tammy would have opportunities she herself never did. 

When her daughter accepted her diploma, Lacy shot out of her seat, clapping and cheering. She had never been so happy and proud in all her life. 

What’s wrong with this passage?

Emotion is shown clearly through Lacy’s hitching breath, the warm rush signaling tears, her rapt attention and then finally jumping up to cheer her daughter on. But that last line: She had never been so happy and proud in all her life. This unnecessary explanation of Lacy’s happiness and pride is like hammering a nail long after it’s flush with the board.  In the book, Description by Monica Wood, there’s a great rule of writing called RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain. So when it comes to emotion, remember RUE.

Over Showing

Over showing is when a writer gets caught up in the moment and goes too far by showing everything. Too much emotional description can slow the pace of the scene, create purple prose or clichés, and come across as melodramatic.

EXAMPLE:

Finn huddled behind the rusted oil drum, dripping with cold sweat as she tried to control her loud, rasping breath. The sound of Alex scraping the crowbar along the warehouse’s cement floor turned her heart into a jackhammer. A scream built up in her throat and she clamped her teeth tight, converting it into a nearly soundless whimper. Her body trembled and shuddered in the dark, and a cascade of thoughts piled up like shoreline debris– the odd things he said, the strange gifts and creepy poems, his interest in seeing blood—why didn’t these things didn’t send off air raid sirens in her head before tonight? 

What’s wrong with this passage?

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000046_00058]In some ways, this is a great moment showing fear. Body language, thoughts and visceral sensations all work to bring about intensity, but because there is so much of it, it feels overblown. Emotion doesn’t just build here…it roars. As a result, clichés form (the jackhammer heartbeat) and purple prose emerges from too many fanciful ideas (cascading thoughts, shoreline debris, air raid sirens, etc.) The combination of too much description creates the flavor of melodrama, which can cause the reader to disengage. Showing is great, but in moderation. Sometimes an author can say more with less.

Getting the right balance of emotion on the page isn’t easy, so I hope this helps! And if you would like to read about these common problems in more detail (or the other issues with writing emotion), you can find in depth information in the “Look Inside” sample of The Emotion Thesaurus at Amazon. Feel free to take a peek!

~~~~~~~

Also, Becca’s at Rebecca Lyndon’s blog today talking about characterization techniques writers can steal borrow from the stellar cast of Finding Nemo. If you’ve got time, please stop by and say hello!

Posted in Balance, Characters, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Show Don't Tell, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 26 Comments

Talents and Skills Thesaurus: Mimicking

One quick note: Marlene at The Write Spot is sharing the fourth installment from our What Killed It For Me Series (clichéd characters). If you missed it the first time around, check it out at The Write Spot, or you can find the entire series here at Writers Helping Writers.

~~~~~~

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

MIMICKING

 parrot-177390_1280

Description: The ability to mimic sounds, voices, accents, etc. so one sounds just like the person or thing that one is mimicking.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: strong listening skills

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: observant, disciplined, determined, playful, mischievous, deceptive, resourceful, imaginative

Required Resources and Training:

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions: Comedians are often able to mimic the voices and body language of others to humorous effect. Spies and assassins are often portrayed as being able to flawlessly copy the accents and vocal inflections of others. 

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • when one needs to impersonate someone via a non-visual medium (over the phone, from the far side of a door, from inside an adjoining room, etc.)
  • when verbal permission for something is needed and the person in charge would never grant it himself
  • when someone wants to degrade or belittle an opponent
  • when someone wants to discredit an opponent by posing as that person and speaking falsehoods or unflattering statements
  • when a secret signal is needed and one needs to be able to mimic an animal or object
  • in hunting, to call one’s prey
  • when it’s necessary to lure someone away from safety
  • when someone is working as a voice over artist or comedian

Resources for Further Information:

Voice Over Experts Discuss Voice Matching and Imitating Voices

How to Imitate Voices

Making Animal Sounds

Related Talents and Skills:  A Knack with Languages

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Talents and Skills Thesaurus Entry: Blending In

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

 

6206841762_93a1d5b0b6_z

Courtesy: USAG-Humphreys at Creative Commons

BLENDING IN

Description: Being able to blend in to one’s surroundings, whether it be a socialite party, a corporate event, or a busy street. People with this skill are chameleons who can fit in easily with different groups and look the part even if it’s not really them.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: To succeed in this area, one must have the ability to accurately read people and situations. This skill involves manipulating others to believe that one belongs, so being able to easily lie or deceive is a must. A strong memory is necessary in order to remember what has been told to whom, and quick thinking is a beneficial quality when one must react believably to suspicion or difficult questions.

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: perceptive, observant, bold, alert, charming, discreet, private, hypocritical, manipulative 

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions: Spies, assassins, and government agents are often endowed with this skill, along with politicians and socialites who know how to work a room. Most often, this skill is embodied by those who wish to deceive—people with an agenda. But in real life, we often do this without guile simply as a way of fitting in.

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • In one of the above career paths where blending in is part of the job description
  • when one needs to infiltrate different people groups in order to gain information
  • when someone is running for her life and needs to remain incognito
  • when it’s necessary to gain access to a person outside of one’s inner circle and win him over
  • in high school
  • when someone has moved to a new area and is trying to fit in and make friends
  • in a culture where one’s political or religious views are in opposition to those in charge and it is necessary to keep one’s beliefs private
  • in a situation where one wants to make a good impression

Resources for Further Information:

20 Tips on Blending in with the Locals

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Critiques 4 U

7346134332_d316cbd358_o

Courtesy: Denise Krebs at CC

I don’t know about you all, but I love to critique. Maybe it’s being able to help others with their trouble spots. Possibly, it’s my mutant writing gene that makes the revision stage my most favoritest part of the process. Maybe it’s my inner four-year-old reveling in the knowledge that I’m not the only one who needs help. Whatever the motivation, I do love to critique, but because of all the stuff I’ve got going on, I don’t get to do a lot of it these days.

But there’s this old saying: necessity is the mother of invention. What does this mean? It means that I’m creating my own opportunity to critique. And you guys are the guinea pigs beneficiaries.

Every month or so, I’ll post a call for first pages. If you’re working on something (no erotica, please) that needs fresh eyes, leave a comment. I’ll randomly draw 3 commenters from the 24-hour period that follows and post the winners in the comment section. If you win, you can email me your first page and I’ll give you my feedback.

So when, as Disney likes to say, does the magic begin? Well, there’s this other saying: There’s no time like the present. What does this mean? I think that’s fairly obvious. Anyone who’d like a first-page critique, please leave a comment including your name, the working title of your WIP, its genre, and the intended audience. On Wednesday, I’ll announce the winners and we can let the games begin!

Posted in Critiquing & Critiques, Uncategorized | 81 Comments

Character Talents and Skills: Re-purposing

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

pixabottle
When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

 Re-purposing

Description: the ability to envision new uses for common items, or to alter what one has to fit a specific need.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: being good with one’s hands, the ability to imagine how different objects might fit together or work in a different way, thinking beyond the obvious, the drive to find a better, more efficient way of doing things, the desire to avoid wastefulness, a willingness to learn and try new things, being “crafty,” seeing beauty in common things, having a eco-mindset, being mechanically-minded

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: creative, imaginative, thrifty, tenacious, calm, curious, sensible, decisive

Required Resources and Training: collecting useful items at minimal cost, or hanging onto things that can be reinvented to become something else, treating items gently so that they last, researching do-it-yourself projects (sites like Pinterest are a treasure trove of ideas), learning to see the potential in common things, applying oneself to master tools or learn creative techniques, volunteering in order to learn new skills (carpentry, home repair, engineering, mechanics, painting, etc.)

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions:

  • That re-purposing is often harder than it looks
  • That just because something is old doesn’t mean it isn’t useful
  • That people who re-purpose are cheap or stingy

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • being able to fix problems or make necessary repairs when one has little resources to work with
  • being able to stretch one’s resources when times are tight
  • succeeding by applying creative thinking to problems that stump linear thinkers
  • being able to show thoughtfulness through creating gifts that are one of a kind and useful
  • creating items that are helpful, stylish or unique and selling them to earn money

Resources for Further Information:

Re-purposing on Pinterest

50 Creative Ways to Repurpose, Reuse and Upcycle Old Things

Green Tips for a Healthy Planet

LifeHacks Discussion Board

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

 

Image: Alsudiz @ Pixabay

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Kick it up a Notch: Top Tips on Writing a Page-Turning Novel

We all want to write an engaging, page-turning story. But that’s harder said than done, as is proven by the number of times I leave a movie complaining that it was one long bull crap moment. There are tips and tricks to successfully writing a can’t-put-it-down book. Eileen Goudge is here today to share some of them with us…

3024760675_c49e59b0d3_o

Courtesy: Sam Beckwith at CC

If you’ve watched the hit TV show “24”, you know that every day in the life of hero Jack Bauer is a really, really bad day. When he’s not hunting terrorists he’s saving a major city from total annihilation. Is any of it remotely believable? Hell no. But we watch anyway.  Why? Because the action moves at such a rapid clip, we don’t pause to reflect on the gaping plot holes until the credits are rolling.  (Seriously, a middle-aged guy singlehandedly taking out a dozen armed terrorists?)

It’s the same reason authors like Stephen King have legions of fans. King is a master of plot and pacing.  He knows that to create a novel that’s addictive you have to “kick it up a notch,” in the words of chef Emeril Lagasse. King’s current bestseller, Mr. Mercedes, had me at page one. It was off and running when I still had one foot on the ground climbing into the passenger seat. (It contains some Jack Bauer-like heroics, is all I can say without being a spoiler.) Is it the kind of stuff that would ever happen in real life? Doubtful. But who cares? We get enough real life in our own lives, and it’s usually pretty tame compared to a day in the life of Jack Bauer. Whether it’s a novel or filmed entertainment, fantasy or reality-based, we all want the same thing when reading a book:  to be swept away.

So how do you accomplish this when you’re writing a novel? How do you take a low-octane plot and kick it up at notch?

Don’t be afraid to be over the top. Your plot doesn’t have to be in the realm of the probable, just believable enough to keep readers from rolling their eyes in disbelief. The only rule is that it has to make sense in the context of the story so it doesn’t seem out of character.

When I first started out as a writer I made it a practice to keep up with what was selling by reading at least one book by each of the authors whose titles frequently appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. If you want to understand the perennial popularity of a Danielle Steel, check out Palomino. The heroine is not only dumped by her cheating husband, an anchor on the local news channel, she then has the torment of watching him and his now-pregnant girlfriend/co-anchor on TV every day. And that’s just the first chapter. Before she’s paralyzed in an accident.

You may roll your eyes at this plot line, but in the hands of a skilled writer like Steel, it’ll have you turning the pages too fast to think, “Please. Like this would ever happen!”


In my first novel, Garden of Lies, which was a New York Times bestseller, my doctor heroine is faced with an unwanted pregnancy as a first-year intern. She agrees to end the pregnancy only if her doctor boyfriend will perform the abortion. She wants him to know it’s a big deal, not the minor procedure he seems to think it is. In ending a life they’re both scarred for life. And that’s just one of the subplots. The main plot is the classic tale of babies switched at birth with a twist: It’s the mother of one of the babies who consciously makes the switch.

Create high stakes. It’s one thing to have the protagonist lose his job or have the bank foreclose on his house. We read about this sort of thing every day in the news, so it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary; we feel for the person crying on TV because they lost their house and wish him or her well. With fiction, we want the exact opposite: more pain and suffering. If the protagonist is thrown into hot water, we want that water to be scalding.

Take The Firm, for instance—the novel that launched the mega-bestselling John Grisham’s career. The protagonist, Mitch, not only suspects there’s something fishy going on at the law firm that’s just hired him, but he notices the mortality rate among junior partners is unusually high. Soon he’s on the hit list and being chased, not only by the crooks, but by the mob and FBI. Who cares if that’d likely never happen in real life and you wouldn’t survive to tell the tale if it did? It makes for a compulsively readable novel and was made into a film that was a box-office hit.

Make us care before you toss your hero into hot waterThere’s a reason you don’t see a dead body in the opening pages of my newest title, Bones and Roses (Book One of my Cypress Bay mystery series). I wanted readers to first get to know my amateur sleuth Tish—a recovering alcoholic who lost her mom at a young age—so when the corpse does turn up, they’d understand and appreciate the impact it has on her.


In opening scenes, suspense should come from the protagonist himself (or protagonists if it’s a multiple-viewpoint novel). Readers will want to know more about this character, so they’ll keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. If the author fails to create reader sympathy for the protagonist before he or she is put in a tight spot or a tight spot becomes even tighter, the reader won’t care whether or not he or she finds a way out.

Take The Shining, by Stephen King. King foreshadows the horrors to come in an opening scene in which down-on-his-luck protagonist Jack Torrance is interviewing for the job of caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. You care what happens to Jack and his wife and son, and you suspect it’s not going to turn out all hunky-dory when he gets the job.

In short, if you haven’t developed reader sympathy for your protagonist, the sledgehammer blow on which the plot hinges won’t have as much impact.

Keep up the pace. Remember when you were a kid and your big brother would twist your arm behind your back until you cried “uncle”?  There’s no crying uncle in a taut, fast-paced novel. As you build toward the climax, it needs to be fast and furious with no letting up. In Michael Kortya’s masterful suspense novel, Those Who Wish Me Dead, a wilderness guide is leading a group of at-risk youths—among them, a kid who witnessed a murder and is being hunted by killers. Throw in a former U.S. marshal who has her own reasons for finding the kid, a forest ranger with a tortured past, the hero’s plucky wife back at the ranch, and a couple of really scary psychopaths, and you have a potent blend that’ll get the reader’s pulse pounding like a triple shot of espresso.

You write romance? Same rule applies as with horror and suspense novels: keep those pages turning with memorable characters and a compelling plot. Will Scarlett find happiness with Rhett?  Will Bridget Jones get over herself and get with Mr. Darcy? These questions keep the plot bubbling and the protagonist stewing to perfect, delicious done-ness.


These are just a few of the basics. For more about how to write a page-turner, I recommend Writing the Blockbuster Novel, an excellent how-to written by my former literary agent and ex-husband, Albert Zuckerman. As someone who’s published a novel of his own and shaped countless others (including those of bestselling author Ken Follett), Al really knows his stuff.

Eileen authorNew York Times’ bestselling novelist Eileen Goudge wrote her first mystery, “Secret of the Mossy Cave,” at the age of eleven. She went on to pen the perennially popular GARDEN OF LIES—which was published in 22 languages around the world—and numerous other women’s fiction titles. BONES AND ROSES is the first book in her Cypress Bay Mysteries series. She lives in New York City with her husband, television film critic and entertainment reporter Sandy Kenyon. Online, you can find her at her website.

Posted in Guest Post, Pacing, Writing Craft | 23 Comments

Talents and Skills Thesaurus Entry: Reading People

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

7566255092_635dc790a5_z

Aaron Brinker, Creative Commons

READING PEOPLE

Description: “Reading people” is the ability to size others up quickly and accurately. People with this skill are able to see through misdirection and outright deceit to correctly identify a person’s character or motives in many different situations.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: being a good listener, being able to think clearly and in an organized fashion

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: observant, perceptive, extroverted (other-focused), discerning, objective, decisive, focused, sensible, empathetic

Required Resources and Training: While some people are inherently good at reading others, there are some things that can be done to improve one’s discernment in this area.

There’s a kind of science to lying, with certain tells that reveal deceit. Paul Ekman studied this in great detail and shares his findings in his book Telling Lies; studying these tells and the micro expressions that people use when they’re not being truthful can improve one’s ability to identify truth from falsehood in others.

Much of what we know about others, we learn by observation. Anyone who wants to read people better can do so by simply studying them. Paying close attention to people, listening intently to them, and engaging with them will result in a better understanding of people in general and will eventually help us to recognize patterns.

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions: Con-artists, detectives, gamblers, psychics, and empaths are often portrayed as being able to read others well. While it’s a positive skill to have, it often has a negative connotation, being used by people to manipulate and take advantage of others. The other stereotype is that of the shy and under-valued but highly perceptive sidekick or peripheral character. This person keeps to the background and doesn’t seem to have much purpose until, at a pivotal moment in the story, he/she reveals some great truth about the hero or villain that everyone else has missed.

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • when someone with power or influence is not who they appear to be
  • when a dangerous person is about to do something deadly
  • when someone is suicidal and is hiding their desperation
  • when a friend is in an abusive relationship
  • when someone is being conned
  • when a famous or highly regarded person needs to know his true friends from those who would use him
  • when trying to get to the bottom of an argument or long-lasting feud
  • when a police officer is interviewing a subject
  • when a con-artist or criminal is looking for a mark

Resources for Further Information:

18 Tips and Tricks about Reading People

What Every BODY is Saying

Telling Lies

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

When Your Writing Routine Goes Poof

I’m an easily distracted person. In order to write productively, I need a private space with no voices, few interruptions, and a view—because, let’s be honest, when you spend a large portion of your writing time staring out the window, you need something nice to look at. And all of this was fairly easy to arrange before my kids were born.

IMG_0236So cute, right? They make life worth living. They also make writing really difficult. For the past six years, I’ve had roughly 2 hours of writing time each day. To maximize that time, I’ve had to stick to a strict routine to keep myself on task. I work in my office, where it’s private, noise is minimized (meaning, the wrestling matches go undetected, but I can hear when they take the turn into a UFC cage match), and the kids can get me if they need me. I light a candle. I start up some instrumental music. With these things in place, it’s easier for me to focus and write.

But something happened last week that shot holes all through my perfect writing routine. My youngest son started school—half-day PreK. But that’s great, you say. Writing will be so much easier now with both kids at school, right?

One would think. But, le sigh, not so much. See, my kids attend different schools that are twenty minutes apart, with vastly different drop-off and pick-up times. In order to maximize my writing and decrease the amount of time spent driving back and forth, I decided it would be best for me to drop my son off, then write at the library that’s around the corner from his school. It wasn’t the perfect solution (obviously, writing at home with all my stuff in its proper place was the perfect solution), but I figured it would work. Unfortunately, those first few days were fairly unproductive. Why? Because the triggers I’d set up to get myself into the writing mood—privacy, music, candle, view—aren’t in great abundance at the library.

Now, I know that some of you don’t struggle with this. I know writers who can write anywhere, any time, no matter what’s going on. If that’s you, I envy you. I resist the urge to poke your dolls with voodoo pins. I wish I was wired that way, but I’m just not. So if you’re one of those types like me, who need structure when writing, what can you do when your routine/schedule/regimen changes, and you can’t  get into the writing groove? Here are some things that are working for me:

1. Keep Trying Ideas until You Find Ones that Work. My initial plan was to write at my son’s school (which is held at a church). But that first day, I learned that there was no Wi-Fi, which I need for Thesaurus writing. Also, my writing space was located right next to the nursery, which was noisy enough, but when the bingo group walked in…time for Plan B. I considered going to a nearby Panera or Chick-fil-A, since they have Wi-Fi, but I knew there would be too many distractions. So my third option was the library. It took me three tries to find a nice private spot there, and then I was on my way.

2. Duplicate as many of your old triggers as you can. There is no pretty view from inside our library, and for some reason, the dictatorial powers-that-be frown upon my open flame candle. *boggle* But I found the privacy piece in the Quiet Reading Room. And I realized that if I bring my earbuds, I can listen to music on my computer while I write. I also always have a drink of some kind while writing, so I’m now smuggling a Snapple into the library. I know. I’m a total hell-raiser. Anyway, when change rears its chaotic head, some of your old triggers just aren’t going to work anymore. But some of them will. Find the ones that do, and make them work for you.

3. Reward Yourself. It’s universal: change sucks. Scrapping an established routine and starting from scratch is hard. One of the things I wasn’t looking forward to was lugging my stuff to the library everyday to work. I knew I would need a good bag to carry my laptop and books back and forth, so I decided to get a nice one. And wouldn’t you know? I got this one for a song at a charity auction.

photo-25

Now, I don’t mind carting my stuff around as much. Every time I see this, it makes me happy—not only because I bought a pretty new bag, but because I was able to help this incredible cause at the same time. Maybe you’d like to work at a local coffee shop or café—some place where you could have a yummy snack or drink while working. If you write longhand or need paper for taking notes, treat yourself to an awesome pen or notebook. Figure out what motivates you and give yourself a little writing-related pick-me-up to propel you into your new normal.

4. Maintain Perspective. The writing has to get done. Period. The conditions may not be ideal. You may have to write at a time that isn’t so productive for you (hello, mornings). You might have to squeeze your writing time into smaller chunks than you’d like (hello, children). But, chances are, your old writing routine wasn’t initially ideal, either. Very likely, that routine began because of a change that killed the preceding routine. While change is hard, it can be maneuvered, even conquered. Give yourself some time to adjust, and you’ll soon find yourself hammering out the words and wondering what all the fuss was about.

What about you? What are your must-haves to write productively? If you’re struggling with any part of your routine, feel free to let us know in the comments, and maybe we can brainstorm a solution.

Posted in Time Management, Writing Time | 49 Comments