Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Pain of Killing Your Characters

Ever wonder how novelists decide which of their characters to eliminate? I was forced to kill a character I loved because I had written myself into a corner. I was so upset that I cried and had to stop writing that day. I then remembered something Benjamin Capps once told me during an interview:

“Probably no reader of mine ever felt so strongly or shed a small tear unless I had already done so in the writing.”

Emotional investment in a writer’s characters is undoubtedly what makes a novel successful. If an author doesn’t really care about her characters, why should the reader? But how involved does a writer have to be to make her readers care? That’s a question someone smarrter than I am will have to answer.

I do know, however, that many of us live with our characters 24/7, until the book is finished. That's when it’s hard for me to let go, which is why I like writing a series. The characters to whom I’ve given birth can age right along with me, unless, of course, I’m forced to kill them off.

After covering a police beat for eight years and writing about the worst aspects of human nature, I decided to write an amateur sleuth series. My Logan & Cafferty series features two 60-year-old women; one a private investigator’s widow, the other a mystery novel buff. In the first book, A Village Shattered, the women are forced to discover the identity of a compulsive murderer, who is alphabetically doing away with their friends. They also discover that their own names are on the killer’s list.

In the second novel, Diary of Murder, I placed them in a motorhome in the midst of a Rocky Mountain blizzard. I had previously killed one my character’s sister, but the reader doesn’t get to know her until her diary is found and read throughout the novel.

I like my main characters because they’re witty and sassy, according to one reviewer, and I could never bring myself to eliminate them as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempted with Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie with Herculue Peroit. They're like old friends whom I enjoy visiting every day to listen in on their conversations.

Do you love your main characters or do you tire of writing about them and want to kill them off?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Suspense Plays an Important Role in Novels

Centuries ago storytelling was a dangerous pastime. Tales were told around a campfire and, if the storyteller droned on and bored his listeners, they either fell asleep or killed him, according to Sol Stein in his book, Stein on Writing. Fortunately for modern writers, the worst thing that can happen is that the reader will put your book aside and never pick it up again. So, in order insure that your work is read, don’t include the boring stuff that readers tend to skip over. That’s usually descriptive passages that should be spooned in with light doses, not all in one large lump. Or it can be tedious dialogue that has nothing to do with the plot’s race to the finish line. Editors call that padding and ask that writers delete it, or even worse, they reject the manuscript and return it.

Suspense is one of the most important elements of plotting. It keeps your reader reading and unable to put the book down. How many times have you read until two or three in the morning because you couldn’t go to sleep without first learning the plot’s resolution? And then couldn’t fall asleep because the book was so good that it continually replayed in your mind?

No matter how unique your style or intriguing your characters, if you don’t pique your reader’s curiosity and keep her hooked until the end of the story, you might as well be the campfire storyteller with a club over your head. Keep your reader in suspense with occasional rest periods so that he can catch his breath with a little description and backstory. Always keep your eye on the finish line and make the race to the book’s conclusion as suspenseful as possible.

The greatest compliment a writer can receive is for someone to say, “I couldn’t put the book down.” How many times have you said that, yourself? And what was it about that book that kept you reading? Nine times out of ten, you’ll say it was suspense and your own curiosity that kept you reading to learn what was going to happen next. Suspense, according to Stein, is the strong glue between reader and writer. And, of course, caring about the characters and wanting them to resolve their problems.

The word suspense comes from the Latin word “to hang.” So consider yourself an executioner who takes your reader to the edge of a cliff. Once there you hang your protagonist by his fingertips. It’s not your job to feel sorry for the cliff hanger or to immediately rescue him. Leave him hanging until his fingers are slipping and he’s about to fall into a deep, dark canyon. Suspense builds as the reader anxiously waits for someone to rescue the hero, but it’s not happening yet; or the villain is stomping on the hero’s fingers and the reader wants him to stop. That’s an exaggerated example of suspense, but one that a writer can use it to his advantage.

There are various forms of suspense: potential or immediate danger to your protagonist, unwanted confrontations, a fear of what’s about to happen, and a crisis that needs to be met head on. A writer's job is to set up a situation or problem that needs a resolution, but without an immediate answer. Your detective is a novel killer if he picks up a clue in chapter two and says, “Ah ha, I know who this button belongs to. I’ll contact the police and have her arrested for the murder.” Unless, of course, you’re writing a short story or very short novella. Stretch out suspense as long as possible like a rubber band on the verge of breaking.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Choosing a Compatible Critique Group

I recently formed a mystery writer's critique group with authors whose work is similar to mine. I hadn’t taken part in one since 1999, when I joined a large online group comprised of novice writers. As a journalist for more than a decade, making the transition to fiction was a real challenge. My years as a police reporter was a plus when I began writing mysteries but my prose was too terse and lacked description. So feedback from the group made the difference. The downside was that there were so many members in the group that my writing time consisted of critiquing their manuscripts. My lesson learned was to find a few like-minded writers whose work I admire. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My Visit with Julie Garwood

Julie Garwood is the author of more than 30 historical and romantic suspense novels, and 36 million copies of her books are in print. Twenty of them have appeared on the New York Times Bestsellers list. She also writes YA novels as Emily Chase.

Julie, tell us about The Ideal Man.

    It's a story of a young woman who is facing two threats.The first one has been with her from her childhood, and the second one comes from an incident that she is thrown into by coincidental circumstance.

    Despite the fear she's faced since she was young, she's managed to become a dedicated surgeon. She's successful and self assured; yet, there's always that vulnerability inside. She's never really allowed herself to let go . . . until the second threat appears. She accidentally becomes a witness to a crime, and the FBI agent on the case not only helps her resolve her fears but also opens her up to emotions she's never felt before.

How did growing up in a large Irish family lend
itself to storytelling?

    The Irish are by nature great storytellers I think. It seems to come with the genes. They bring out all the nuances of a situation, and I loved sitting around the dinner table listening to my family talk. Also, growing up in a family of seven children taught me that self-expression had to be quick and forceful.

Why did you begin writing YA books and historicals?
    I had young children when I began, so I was drawn to that genre, but I was also interested in historical novels. I had taken a medieval history class in college that I absolutely loved, so I was following that passion as well. My first book, A Girl Named Summer, was published by Scholastic, and shortly after that, Gentle Warrior was published by Pocket Books. The historical novels found a growing audience, and the publishers asked for more of them, so that's that direction my writing has taken.
    While I really enjoy writing the adult books, I'm hoping to find the time to write a few more for young readers someday.

How have your books evolved over the years?
    I haven't changed my themes much. I still write about family and loyalty, and I try to insert some humor into my stories. There's always an element of intrigue or suspense and the romance between the hero and heroine is absolutely key. The setting has changed somewhat. I started with historical novels and I've moved into contemporary settings in the last few years. I enjoy each of them, so my goal is to find the time to write both.

What's your writing schedule like?
     I like to begin writing early in the morning. It's a routine I started when my children were young. I'd get up early and work on my book before they were awake. I usually have the TV on, though I'm not watching it. It's just background noise. This is a habit that developed when I was a child doing my homework around a table with my siblings. In order to concentrate, I learned to block out the distractions.

Do you outline your novels and do you aim for a certain amount of words each day?

    I know where the story is headed, but I don't follow a rigid outline. I find that if I let the story evolve, there will always be some surprises along the way that make it more fun. I can't predict how much I'll produce. There are times when the words just flow and I'll write one or two chapters in a day. Then there are times when I can't seem to get a scene right and I may spend two or three days on one page.

Why do some books make the bestseller lists while other equally well-written books fail?
    That's a million dollar question. If I had the answer to that, I'd be a genius. I do believe, though, that there are a great many elements involved. They include some marketing, some talent, and a great deal of luck.

Advice to fledgling novelists?
    First, stay focused and set aside some time each and every day to work on your writing. It's important that you get into a rhythm and have the discipline to finish your manuscript.
    Second, let your voice be heard in your writing. If your reader can hear you talking to them in your words, they're more likely to listen to what you have to say.
    Third, develop a network. Writers' organizations and conferences and conferences give you opportunities to meet agents and editor, and that will help you learn more about the publishing business and perhaps give you a leg up in getting published.

How would you occupy your time if you weren't writing?
    Family would probably take up most of my time. I have a large extended family, so there's always something going on.

Thank you for an enjoyable visit.
You can visit Julie Garwood's website at: http://www.juliegarwood.com/
At Facebook: www.Facebook.com/juliegarwood
and at Twitter: @JulieGarwood

Julie Garwood's interview will be among those featured in my forthcoming book, The Mystery Writers, including Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block, J.A. Jance and many others.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Visit with Cheryl Kaye Tardif

Cheryl Kaye Tardif's work is called Canadian suspense with a killer twist. The bestselling suspense author from north of the border tackles sensitive and terrifying situations that that most people wouldn't want to consider. From psychic investigations to serial killers and assisted suicides, she delves into the human psyche and spotlights our worst fears.

Cheryl, how did your first novel, Whale Song, come about and had you written/published anything prior to it?

Whale Song was in my head for two years before I ever wrote down the title. In fact, I wasn't even sure I was going to write it. At the time, I had pretty much given up hope of getting published; I had tried for years. But the story of Whale Song haunted me. I couldn't shake the characters or the plot. Finally, a friend said, "Cheryl, don't worry whether it gets published.Write it for yourself. Write it because you have to." That was the best advice I've ever been given.

Since Whale Song, which was first published in 2003, I've had six more novels published (Children of the Fog, Devine Intervention, Devine Justice, The River, Lancelot's Lady and Whale Song: School Edition), as well as Skeletons in the Closet, Other Creepy Stories, and Remote Control, a novelette. All my works are available in ebook editions and all but the novelette are out in trade paperback. I've also had a short story published in What Fears Become: An Anthology From the Horror Zone.

You've written in a number of genres and under a pseudonym. Which genre do you prefer and which has been the most successful?

Suspense is my forte. And any combination of suspense, mystery, paranormal has been successful for me.

Why do you think all your novels have made the bestseller lists?

In general, readers don't like predictable, formulaic works. They'll never have that with my novels. I strive to be unpredictable and I don't use any kind of formula when writing my books. My stories are a mix of plot-driven and character-driven tales. And I bring emotion into each story, whether it's fear, sorrow, happiness, excitement or another emotion. I want my readers to feel like they're right there in the story, seeing everything, feeling everything.

How do you promote your work?

I have two main websites and a blog, plus I belong to various social networks. Most of my marketing is done online through various websites and promotions. And my books are promoted via Imajin Books, my publishing company.

Why did you decide to go the indie route with your own publishing company and how long was it before you began publishing the work of other writers?

I began my career as an indie published author, self-publishing three titles from 2003-2005. With their success I was able to secure a New York agent and a traditional publisher. I recognized a lot of serious problems with my publisher early on and ended up removing my books just before they went under. My experience wasn't entirely negative though; I learned a lot from them--especially what NOT to do as a publishing company.

After leaving my publisher, I decided to return to indie publishing and set up my books again under my publishing company, Imajin Books. Over the next year or so I was approached by other authors who asked me if I'd consider publishing them. I said no, but it made me think. I realized there was a need for what I could offer.

So, on January 15, 2011, I opened Imajin Books to accept other authors. We now have a great group on board; some will be publishing their second book with us this spring/summer.

How does your publishing company differ from other small presses?

Imagin Books is an innovative company. We offer a hybrid form of publishing, kind of a cross between indie publishing and traditional. We offer a small advance and much higher than average royalties on ebooks and trade paperback sales. We consider ebooks to be primary rights, with print a subsidiary right. We only secure these rights so authors are free to purse film and other rights.

Our authors have more input into the creation of their books. We go through various editing stages, which they're part of, and they have input into their cover and trailer as well. We treat our authors like partners. Yet they pay nothing up front. We are NOT a subsidiary publisher. We focus on ebooks sales and market accordingly.

How do your print books sales compare with ebooks? And when did your ebooks begin outselling print editions in Canada?

Print sales are a small percentage of what we sell.
Our ebooks far outsell our paperbacks. Last time I looked at the numbers we were selling 50 ebooks for every paperback. We have always sold more ebooks than print.

What's your work schedule like?

I work six to seven days a week. My hours vary, but I rarely work less than eight hours a day and often more. I love what I do and I take frequent breaks, so it doesn't really seem like I'm working that long. The great thing is that I can take days off when I need them.

My schedule is divided between answering email, reading submissions, coordinating editors and authors, assigning covers to designers, checking back with everyone, arranging our promotions, updating the website and blog, and anything else that comes up.

Advice for novice writers?

Learn the business of writing and publishing.Too many writers think all they need to do is write a good story. That's just not true in today's market. If you want to be successful you need to have a firm grasp of the business, of what it takes to make your book shine and stand out amongst all others. So take writing/editing courses, join writers' groups, join a critique group (if you can't take criticism you in the wrong business), and be sure you have a website, blog, Twitter and Facebook account BEFORE you query a publisher or agent. A book won't sell without consistent marketing on the part of the author.

Thanks, Cheryl. You can learn more about Cheryl at her websites: http://www.cherylktardif.com and http://www.whalesongbook.com and http://www.imajinbooks.comHer blogs: http://www.cherylktardif.blogspot.comand http://www.imajinbooks.Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/cherylktardif and http://www.twitter.com/imajinbooksFacebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cheryl-Kaye-Tardif-novels/29769736630 and https://www.facebook.com/imajinbooks

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

All That Research!

I love research. In fact, it’s my favorite part of writing. When I was young and foolish, I spent two years at a microfilm machine to research a centennial history. Needless to say, I’ve since done my research online, in person or on the phone. The benefit was having a stack of typewritten notes leftover that I used for my first historical novels, with enough notes remaining to write several more.

When I began writing mysteries, I had my own police procedural information at hand because my husband is a former highway patrolman. And I was a police reporter. However, because I had written about so many disturbing and heartbreaking events, I decided my series would feature mature women amateur sleuths and a lovesick sheriff. Humor is an integral part of my work and I include it in all my books, both fiction and nonfiction, with a little romance sprinkled in.
I brought my two feisty women sleuths along when we moved from my native California to my husband’s hometown in Wyoming. So Dana and Sarah also sell their homes in the San Joaquin Valley— where a serial killer has murdered their friends alphabetically in A Village Shattered—and buy a motorhome. They’re traveling in Colorado in Diary of Murder when Dana Logan gets word that her sister Georgi has taken her own life. Dana knows that would never happen so they drive through a Rocky Mountain blizzard to reach Wyoming.
The research for that scene happened several years earlier when I had to drive our motorhome through an unexpected snowstorm. I couldn’t let the terrifying experience go to waste so I began my second mystery novel with it. Then, in Murder on the Interstate, I used my experience driving the RV along a Northern Arizona highway in a rainstorm while listening to truckers on my CB radio. It's there that Dana and Sarah discover a Mercedes convertible with a murdered woman inside, “Big Ruby” McCurdy, a woman trucker, comes to their rescue. 
The humorous CB chatter that follows is authentic because I had listened to it for weeks. I interviewed a woman trucker who hauled produce, so I knew that drivers have to pay for their loads if the lettuce wilts before it gets to market.

Later, when Dana and Sarah conduct research to find the killer, I sent them to the newspaper morgue and library, and have them interview witnesses, along with Dana’s journalist daughter. My own news reporting came in handy but I also used online sources such as the Wikipedia for information on sulfuric acid spills. I then interviewed a chemical engineer to write about homegrown terrorism. Map Quest refreshed my memory of the Arizona terrain as well as an Indian Reservation south of Scottsdale, where the chemical spills occur.
  If I had any doubts about the accuracy of the Wikipedia, I was reassured by bestselling author Lucia St. Clair Robson, a former librarian, who told me that the Wiki is as accurate, if not more, that the Encyclopedia Britannica. I use the online source extensively, but also check the facts in other ways as well.

The only research problem I have is spending too much time reading instead of writing. There are so many fascinating subjects that I have a difficult time putting the research aside to begin spooning it into my novels.