Monday, April 30, 2012

Sticks and Stones . . . and the Kobayashi Maru

News flash: All of life revolves around Star Trek.  Everything you ever needed to learn, you can learn from that show, and this is nowhere more self-evident than the (in)famous Kobayashi Maru scenario.  For all you neophytes, let me briefly summarize: the Kobayashi Maru is a Starfleet computer simulation all cadets must take.  The explicit objective is pretty straightforward: the Kobayashi Maru has somehow bumbled its way deep into the Klingon neutral zone and become stranded.  If you do nothing, the crew's so much Klingon gagh (blood worms), which--trust me--is pretty disgusting, no matter if you prefer those squiggly things alive (how real Klingons show they have hair on their chest) or not.

Do something--cross the border and try and rescue the ship--and not only have you now violated the Organian Peace Treaty (don't ask), but you're also hopelessly outnumbered and soon to become one more plasma smear.

The Kobayashi Maru is the classic no-win scenario.  Natch, it goes without saying that James T. Kirk beat it, but he cheated.  So you can debate whether that really counts.  Distilled to its essence, however, the Kobayashi Maru is a test of character.

We writers also have our peculiar Kobayashi Marus.  They're called reviews. 

Now, every adult knows you can't please everybody all the time.  But we'd like to think that we can just as I think we might also like to pretend that reviews don't matter.

Case in point:  I once heard this crazy-famous writer give a talk, and someone asked if he ever read reviews.  Now, this crazy-famous writer's newest book had just come out a bare five minutes before this particular conference, and so I wagered that he, like everyone remotely human, would be interested in hearing how people reacted to what he'd written.  Well, he said he never looked at reviews because he just didn't need to--and, ooohhh-kay, I thought that was pretty flat-out, shut-mah-mouth amazing.  I mean, we're talking some serious willpower here.  This guy was so sure of himself, his place in the universe, that I bet he was a Klingon in another life.

But I also thought he might be lying, and here's why.  The guy's crazy-famous.  He might pretend to be a Klingon, but we all know he's human and you're telling me he NEVER reads one of those fab reviews?  You expect me to believe his editor NEVER shoots him a review from PW or Kirkus or what-have-you?  Look, I'm not even a gazillionth as crazy-famous, and when my editor sends a review, I read it.  (And, sometimes, yeah, I wish I hadn't.  Like, wow, life is hard enough and now I'm all depressed.  Like, wow, thanks a lot; I really needed that; am I bleeding?) 

Anyway, as it turns out, I was right.  That crazy-famous guy lied, and you know how I know?  Because: I happened to stroll past the Amazon site that day to check out his newest, and I saw this one review that completely trashed the book.  Utterly and totally.  Just ripped that sucker to shreds.  And here's the kicker: I know this famous guy read the same review because he tweeted about it, talking about some Amazon meanie.  Of course, all his fans jumped in to make him feel better--it was a fascinating feed to follow for awhile--and I'm sure that's why he tweeted it in the first place.  (I'm not condemning him, by the way.  That's what friends are for.)

But you do have to ask yourself: why did this crazy-famous guy lie, and about something so trivial?

I don't have a clue, so don't ask me.  Yet this does bring up an interesting point about reviews, in general. 

First question: Do they matter?  (Come on, you all know the answer to this one.)  So, second question: How much do they matter?  Well, we all know the answer to that one, too.  It depends--and oh, isn't that a loaded word?  What makes one opinion more valuable than another?  Because more people agree?  Because the opinion is based on observable data and facts?  (For example, we might all agree that a book with horrible grammar and terrible spelling just can't be good . . . but then we'd have to diss Huckleberry Finn.  In that instance, of course, the story is so damn good, and we all know it.  Sort of like pornography, I guess . . . )

My take--the one I spout when I'm not bleeding from some scathing snipe--is that a review is nothing more than a private opinion made public.  Now, as in all of life, some opinions mean more than others.  Some carry a lot of weight.  (And, no, for the record, while I love my mother, her opinion carries no weight at all.  She's my mother, and people who love you lie.  Ditto for my husband.  On the other hand, since he's read absolutely nothing I've written in the last ten years except a few short stories--and, yes, he said he loved them, but he might be lying--he doesn't have to worry about lying at all.  As for why he doesn't read what I write, it's simple: he's worried that if he says something nice, I won't believe him, and if he criticizes the story, I'll cry.  Honest to God.  For him, offering an opinion is the spousal equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru.) 

The problem for writers is . . . what do you do about reviews?  Do you read them?  Do you search them out?  A very wise pro writer friend once told me that I should never search out reviews because the ones that are the most bruising are the ones I'll remember.  He thought that review-trawling ought to be left to someone else: my husband, a friend, my editor.  (He and his wife, both writers, cull reviews for one another.)  Great advice, if you can take it or have the luxury of someone who will do that for you.  Editors are busy people, though; they'll send you the biggies--PW, Kirkus, Booklist, maybe one or two others--and the rest, they leave out.  Which I think is a shame because I've read some very perceptive reviews by readers and fans, some of which find things in books I never realized I'd done but were obvious once they pointed them out.

The problem with searching for reviews is you're going to read some real stinkers.  Some people are just flat-out mean.  Others are vicious.  A great many are even-handed; the book just didn't work for them, and those you can live with a lot easier than the ones which have decided that you're clearly disturbed and in need of psychiatric help.  (Swear to God, that's what one person thought of a Mechwarrior book.  Blasted me all over Amazon.  It was ugly, mean, really going for that jugular.  Now, I could've been a very understanding shrink and decided that, whoa, guess my book touched some nerve.  Because, honestly, if people rant and foam and decide you're some sort of pervert . . . well, that says a little something about them, doesn't it?  But I'm only human, and that review really got to me.  Fortunately, it got to a bunch of other people, too, who complained to Amazon that the post was a personal attack and got it removed.)

But reviews--ones that trash your work--are attacks.  There's no other way to put it.  Some are just a little more civilized than others, a nice jab with that épée rather than a saber slash or mace bash.  Make no mistake, though: the reviewer is savaging your work, sometimes nicely and sometimes not.  A reviewer with her eye on her audience is more likely to get in those withering bon mots than not--because a review is also a form of entertainment of which a reviewer, like any writer, is always mindful.  Think what a bore Maureen Dowd or the late Molly Ivins would be/have been without a touch of that old zingy venom.

So the question remains: what to do?  I'll be honest; I go back and forth.  On the one hand, I really want to know.  Being told that I've done well is just so primal, you know?  It's like running to your mom with a picture you've drawn, or screeching at your dad to lookit, lookit as you pirouette in your sparkly pink tutu. 

But, on the other, bad reviews are the equivalent of those zits your mother told you to keep your fingers off of, only you never could because they were just begging to be squeezed and there was something about destroying those suckers, that satisfying little pop.  Come on, you know what I'm talking about; I'll bet you stood at the mirror for hours searching out those blackheads and zits until your face looked like you'd gotten carjacked and drug about five miles over gravel.  I know . . . as appetizing to think about as gagh.)  

In the end, I guess it just depends--on what you can tolerate; how much damage good or bad reviews will do (because good reviews can be just as deleterious if they shake you up enough to wonder just what the hell you did right because you sure don't know); how much satisfaction you get out of the rest of your life; if there's someone there to hold you when you get the zingers; if you're self-destructive (think squeezing zits until you bleed); if you can decide whose opinion really matters; and if you can roll with the punches.  Yeah, I know: the trouble with punches is you never know if you can roll until you get hit.  But if you don't bounce back well after a couple . . . maybe best to rethink that strategy and not end up in those no-win scenarios.  Because, as we all know, for the valiant and doomed crew of the Kobayashi Maru?

So sucks to be you.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Author Affirmations with Stuart Smalley

by Jordan Dane

“Because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggoneit, people like me.”
Stuart Smalley, Saturday Night Live (Al Franken)

I’ll be on a panel at the Romance Writers of America annual conference in Anaheim in July – “The Care and Feeding of the Writer’s Soul.” Ever since I committed to doing it, I’ve been pondering my contribution and examining my own practices when it comes to nurturing my writer’s spirit.

But I wanted to open the topic up for discussion here to get your input. If you could create a box of affirmations for the writer, what would be your personal contribution?

On my computer I have been collecting sayings that have meant something to me over the years. These have come from author speaking engagements, emails, or things I’ve found online that inspired me enough to post it where I could see them every day. Affirmations can be reminders of author craft you want to repeat or they can be a way to keep a positive attitude or make progress in your career.

Here are a few sayings on my computer that mostly deal with author craft:

“Stick with the action.” Romance author Dana Taylor
When I muddled an intro action scene with back story, Dana wrote these words in an email after she critiqued the scene.

“Be there.” James Patterson
Patterson was a speaker at am RWA conference in 2004. He filled a ballroom, standing room only. By these two words he meant to put your reader into the scene using all their senses. He also said that he puts as much care into the first sentence of each chapter as he does the first line in any book. (I wonder if all the James Patterson(s) do this?)

“Trust the talent.” Robert Crais
I heard Crais present this on a video he sent via email in one of his newsletters. He talked at length about how he writes in constant fear, but that he trusts the talent that has brought him his success. It reminded me that all people have doubts. That’s human nature, but when you have a natural storyteller inside you, you should trust it.

“Get in, make your point, then get the hell out.” Robert Gregory Browne
Rob spelled this out when he explained ELLE on a blog post. Enter Late, Leave Early. The method is best explained by the TV show “Law & Order” where the scenes are sharp, concise, and don’t over-explain to slow pacing. The barest essentials of the scenes are captured to move the story along and a viewer’s mind fills in the gaps in action. The same works for books.

Here are a few that would be my contribution to keep a positive mental attitude:

“The next pair of eyeballs to see this proposal will be the ones to say, Yes!”
“I strive to be better with every book. My best story is always my next one.”

“I touch new readers with every story.”

“My books are unique because they are filtered through me and my personal experiences. I’m not in competition with anyone, except me, to be the best author I can be.”

Here are a few silly ones:

“I never get my page numbers wrong. I must be good at math.”

“When I kill people on paper, they stay dead. Booya!

As for practices to keep me positive, I have a shredding ritual for any rejection to expel the negativity from my house. Try it. It’s liberating. When I complete any project, I also treat myself with something that isn’t food—time off, vacation, fun evening with friends or family, attend a book signing, buy a new outfit. I used to think that each positive step in my quest to become a published author was only a small part of a longer future—that celebrating too much is a distraction that can swell your head. But now I celebrate everything. Life’s too short not to cherish even the smallest of pleasures.

Please share your thoughts. What would you write and contribute to an author’s affirmation box? What practices do you have to keep your mind positive and your writer’s soul nourished?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Blood, Ghosts, and Boo Hags: Write What You Know

People often ask me how I got the idea for the Magnolia League, a dark comedy about Savannah, Hoodoo Magic, the Underworld and death. 
“Possessed debutantes?" they say. "Blood curses? Plat eyes? Slip skin hags? You look so normal…What's up with that, sister?” 
I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where Hoodoo and ghosts are taken as seriously as mint julep recipes and whether or not your ancestors fought on the "noble" side of the Civil War.  I know a lot about ghosts, because we had one in our house. 

After selling, the newly exiled owner of the rambling house I grew up in shot himself in the our bathroom the night before my Mom and Dad were supposed to move in. He didn’t want to give up his ancestral home, so he didn’t. You can believe me or you don’t have to, but that house was as haunted as a cracked mausoleum in New Orleans. If you’ve ever been there, you know that I mean a whole lot.
Out ghost’s presence did not alarm us too much. Charleston is full of ghosts, so it was all normal. He rearranged our shoes, and touched my father’s shoulder sometimes. Once he managed to produce a dark chill in the living room so sudden that my best friend from high school ran screaming to her car. It was actually quite impressive.
Henrietta, our housekeeper, kept a close eye on spirits. She was from a South Carolina Gullah family, which meant she subscribed to certain beliefs and practices derived directly from Africa. We were never to leave hair in our combs and brushes; instead we were to bury the old strands in the yard so spirits couldn’t hang onto us and make trouble. She instructed us daily to clean lint off our carpets, because, she said, dust and lint are what’s left of dead things. She also sang hymns once it became dark to keep evil at bay.

Growing up with spirits as daily conversation, I took the special nature of our household for granted. I didn’t understand until I was older that everyone in the world didn’t put salt on the threshold in the morning to keep away boo hags (dead spirits looking to take your soul to the underworld) ; that putting a knife under the bed was not a medical practice for cutting pain. It wasn’t a matter of whether we believed these things or not; it was just that we lived with them, the same way we lived with the coffee can of bacon fat on the stove and bits of ham hock in our vegetables.
Henrietta died when I was fourteen. Her funeral at the A.M.E. Church on Calhoun Street was opulent and deafening. Strangers clung to my brother and I, handing us candies and pictures. When we went to the burial, family members passed babies over the grave, a practice to ensure a proper goodbye.  Mourners left flowers and chocolate and wine on her stone, so she would be satisfied and not come walking as a ghost to ask for more.
Has she come to look for me? Sure. I’ve seen her in dreams, the same way I used to see Mr. Barnes, the previous owner of our house. He had dark hair going to gray, and was thin, and wore fine shoes that shined. I’ve never seen him, I just know that. When you live with a ghost for a long time, you just know.
So that's why I write about spirits. They're in my blood. It sort of amazes me that it took me this long to get here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Creative Environment & Rituals

A few years ago, I taught a creativity class at a local community college. Each term, I talked a bit about the need to determine your best creative environment; whether you prefer background noise, solitude, other warm bodies in the room, etc. 

My preference of when and where to create can alter from book to book, week to week and year to year depending on changes in my life situation. For instance, when I had small children at home, I needed peace and quiet in order to write. I wrote early in the mornings before my family woke up, closed away either in my home office or propped up on pillows and under the covers in bed in my spare bedroom. And I would revise what I'd written during breaks at the part-time law-office job I had at the time.

Now that the kids have grown and moved out of the house, I feel stifled sometimes by the confines and solitude of my home office. I often write in coffee shops where there's background noise, but not noise that's directed at me--as was the case when I was raising children! I also write outside sometimes when weather permits.

Long ago, I noticed that ideas and words seem to flow more freely from my mind into my fingertips and onto the page or computer screen when there's water nearby. Since I live in the landlocked great plains and don't have an ocean, river or stream within easy driving distance, my husband and I have turned our backyard into our very own tropical paradise, complete with palm trees, lush foilage and flowers, and even a waterfall. Watching the water trickle over the rocks, listening to the soothing, musical sound of it, somehow frees up my imagination. (To read a good discussion on the topic of water and creativity, click here.)

Famous 20th Century patron of the arts and author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Gertrude Stein, also found inspiration more easily in a certain environment. Purportedly, she connected most easily with her "muse" while in her parked car, where she would often sit to compose poetry on scraps of paper! 

Sometimes, despite the right environment, I get stuck. Walking is a tool I use to come up with ideas, dislodge writer's block, or solve plot problems. The fresh air clears my head as I let my mind wander. I don't know why walking works, but it does. The fact that I burn calories and tone up in the process is an added bonus!

Rituals can make all the difference, as well. Many writers and other artists complete rituals before starting their work for the day. For instance, writer Toni Morrison is said to drink coffee while watching the sunrise before she begins her work for the day. 

While writing THROUGH HER EYES, I began a ritual that I've continued. I make a music soundtrack for my book and listen to it often while I write. I search for music that captures the tone of the story. Since lyrics interfere with the words in my mind, I only use instrumental music, usually from movie soundtracks. My playlist for THROUGH HER EYES included music from the soundtracks of the movies GIRL INTERRUPTED, THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, and IDENTITY. For my book THE SHADOW GIRL that will be out next year, I listened to BENJAMIN BUTTON soundtrack and to the music of violinist Leila Josefowicz. 

When I sit down to write, listening to the soundtrack I create for my book helps me to immediately reconnect with the world of my story.

What is your best creative environment? Do you engage in any rituals before you begin each creative session?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Until Next Time

Well, here it is. Time for me to say goodbye, as this will be my last post as an Adr3nalin3 regular.

I’ve really enjoyed my time here, but I’ve found that currently my concentration is much more focused on my adult thrillers and I felt this spot could be better utilized by someone who is currently more active in the YA arena.

There were things I wanted to do here (most notable the Experimental novel project), and I hope to one day get back to them. But for now I’m going to step aside. This had been a great experience, and I’m very thankful to the other Adr3nalin3 members for including me here, especially to Jordan Dane, who has been nothing short of fantastic.

I’m sure I’ll see you all down the road, and I wish you nothing but the best.

Read well. Imagine. And enjoy life.


Monday, April 23, 2012

It's Actually Happening

Imagine waiting for Christmas to come for four years. On Christmas Eve you'd probably have a mixture of excitement and disbelief. Would tomorrow really come? What was going to happen when it did? Would it be everything you'd hoped for? Those mixed-up feelings are probably the best way I can describe what I'm experiencing right now, since tomorrow my debut novel comes out.

 When I sat down four years ago and wrote what is now more or less the first chapter of my book, OLDSOUL, I really didn't have any idea what I had started. I didn't actually set out to write a book at all. I've always enjoyed writing, and had played with the idea of writing a book for a while. But it wasn't until after I'd written that chapter that I thought hey, maybe I could make something out of it.

From that point it became a goal and a dream to have the book published and for people outside my family to read it. It's been a roller coaster ride ever since then, and it's exciting to finally be just one day away from the dream coming true. I'm not counting on it becoming a bestseller. I'm definitely not expecting everyone who reads it to love it. But hopefully the majority of those who read it will find it worth their time.

On the long path to publication, I've learned a ton about the industry and about myself, and have met some amazing people. One of the most important things I've learned is that you can make that dream come true. It takes hard work. It takes putting yourself in situations well out of your comfort zone. It takes learning when to give in and when to fight for the story you want to tell. But it's possible.

The world won't be changed because my book comes out tomorrow. I understand that. But at the very least I'll have some fun stories to tell my kids about the whole experience. And I'll be able to tell them that like so many other things in life, it's worth every second of hard work. Now excuse me while I go put some milk and cookies out.

OLDSOUL is available 4/24/2012 on Amazon and in paperback, Kindle, and Nook editions. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

❤ SPLINTERED has a face! ❤

by A.G. Howard

Most of you have probably seen Splintered's cover by now, but I wanted to slobber over ... worship .... kiss ... er ... present it on this lovely black background because I'm beyond thrilled with how it turned out!

The cover was designed by Maria Middleton, and given life by the mystical / melancholy artistry of the lovely Nathalia Suellen (aka Lady Symphonia).

My favorite thing of all? That these ladies somehow captured Splintered's eerie yet sometimes kooky mood while still retaining a fairy tale feel. Then they kicked it up a notch and highlighted some pivotal details: the tiny key around Alyssa's neck, and the bugs, flowers, and vines that taunt her throughout the story.

Now that you've seen the outside of my book, here's a peek at the inside. Crank up the volume and enjoy!

And to prove it's not all about me, I'd like to share three other beautiful covers that are eye-candy blips on my visual radar (IOW, so yummy I'm torn between licking them and hanging them on my wall):


Thanks for indulging my cover ! What recent covers have caught your attention and/or your imagination?

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Undiscovered Country of Our Imaginings

You remember Hamlet, right? That "to be or not to be" soliloquy? Or maybe you're most familiar with its incarnation as the subtitle for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where the evil Klingon General Chang, played with giddy abandon by Christopher Plummer, regales the Enterprise crew with more Shakespeare per frame than any previous Trek film--because, as we all know, Shakespeare was Klingon. (Don't get me started on the franchise's canny appropriation of classical and popular literature, by the way, or we'll be here all day.) The fact that Chang's trying to reduce the ship to a plasma smear while channeling Marc Anthony only makes this even more enjoyable.

Chang doesn't succeed (of course), and at film's end, the crew sets course for the second star to the right and straight on till morning, warping off into the future of a metaphorical Never Never Land where they never grow old and I'll be able to revisit them, as they were, whenever I want.

Chang's point--and Shakespeare's--is that death is the ultimate undiscovered country, one from which no advance scouts return to fill us in on what's going to happen next. In the context of the film, though, Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) offers a toast where the quote's meant to highlight uncertainty: peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire's never been achieved; some fear that future and others embrace the unknown.

I was reminded of this during the past week when I settled down to revise and edit a new book, THE SIN EATER'S CONFESSION (Carolrhoda Lab), slated to come out next February. I confess: I wasn't too keen to work on the novel just yet. See, I was deep into (and in love with) a new novel I was all hot and bothered to finish before a drop-dead date when I knew/know that I must stop and begin the last ASHES book. But my editor's wish is my command, so I put aside my new novel and cracked open a book I hadn't seen or thought about in three years--the longest time I've ever been away from a book in my life.

What an experience.

When I edit, I tend to work as I go along: re-reading, tidying, deciding if I agree with an editor's comments or edits. After all, I've reasoned, it's not like I haven't just spent what feels like eons getting to know and care about my characters. I know what happens when and to whom; I can typically find a particular passage or scene without breaking a sweat. Sure, sometimes I rewrite massive sections or add scenes, or divide chapters differently to correct for pacing issues. I see things after a book's marinated that I haven't before. That's pretty standard for every writer, I'll bet. But the changes are never so stunning or major I didn't see or imagine them coming a mile away. (In fact, I frequently have. They turn out to be scenes I've edited out but then reintroduce because, you know, they really DID work that first time around.)

This book was different. Clearly, as the writer, I knew what the book was about. I even kind of remembered the basic order of what happened when. But I didn't remember the scenes so much, who said what when and to whom. Ask me to go to such and such a scene, and it was, like, say, wuh?

At first, I was appalled by my book. There were ENORMOUS pacing issues and big swaths of chunky, clunky writing that sort of hit me in the face. Like, whoa, I wrote THAT? I'll tell you what's also interesting; many of those things slid by my editor. Not that he did a crummy job or anything: he's a fabulous editor. But my guess is that he saw this book at a different point in his life, too--a couple years ago. (We've both changed.)

I can also tell where he fell into the hole in the page, too. There was much more in the way of mark-up early on in the manuscript. By the time he got about a quarter of the way through, the writing had tightened up; the pacing got better; my characters had found themselves and their voices; the plot had legs; and--honestly--I think he got swept away by the story.

The same thing happened to me. I was rewriting massive chunks of this thing, pages and pages and pages. There were scenes I cut out, others I tightened, new passages and paragraphs and scenes I penned from scratch. I was all over that thing like ticks on a ginger mutt.

But then, as I got into the book more deeply, a funny thing happened. I still worked just as hard; in some ways, it felt like I was writing a new book. But I must've accessed the book I'd already stored in my brain, too: not a book graveyard but the undiscovered country where memory lives until we need it. I'd finally fallen back into, and in love with, my book. The words were my character's words, not mine; I wasn't turning over so many rocks to find them. The freaky thing: there were times when I'd write something down, only to discover that I'd written the same thing--in many cases, verbatim--a few pages further on. Already. Three years ago.

So, it was a fascinating experience. Here I am, further along in my career and a different writer than I was when I began--and yet the characters, exiled to the done-book graveyard, are there, the associative connections still active such that when I access those memories and their stories, they think and behave in nearly the identical way they did before. They come to the same ends; they're helpless to alter their paths because I made them that way. They can't do anything but follow those same paths unless I radically re-imagine them and write a wholly different book. In a way, these characters came back from the grave.

Which also reminds me of the opposite and something my very dear friend and mentor, Dean Wesley Smith, once said: when a book fails, don't try to fix it. Kill it. For good and forever. I know: radical. Hurts like hell, too, because you really think that book deserves to live. If you kill it, you'll have nothing to show for all that work and sweat and blood and tears.

But that's not true. What you have to show for failure is experience. Judgment. You know enough to know when something truly stinks. Think about people you've read who don't--and how many books you've thrown across the room.

So, kill the characters. Kill everything about that book because there is nothing you can do to alter the fact of its failure. Your characters will follow their predetermined paths to that same end, just as mine did even three years after they were born. They can't help it, and neither can you.

The only thing a writer can do is reinvent, quite a different thing. Reinvention is the engine whereby your characters head into a truly undiscovered future, one where their story may not fail, because you haven't imagined it yet.

No need to do so with this one, thank heavens. THE SIN EATER'S CONFESSION is fine as it stands--and better now that I've found it again. All it was really waiting for was me to rediscover what I'd already known.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Wicked Good POV Can Get Your Freak On

By Jordan Dane
In honor of Friday the 13th, my version of head hopping.

Okay, I’ll admit that when I first started writing, I had no idea what Point of View (POV) was. I head hopped in a big way. I thought that’s what writers did to show the reader what was in everyone’s head, what they were thinking. I justified my lack of skill by saying that as long as a reader understood the story and didn’t flip out with my POV gymnastics, that my poor technique would be acceptable. Wrong!
Years ago, after I read a blog post from an acquiring New York City editor (who was a believer in one character’s POV per scene), I tried it and it completely opened my eyes to a new way to look at author craft. One POV per scene forced me to focus on one character and tell a mini-story within that scene, to move the plot or character insights forward. It can be a way of hiding plot twists or planting misdirection clues (red herrings) too. I tend to pick whose POV to write in by focusing on which character has the most to lose in that scene, but there are certainly other reasons to pick other characters too. Now I’ve broken perceived “rules” plenty of times, for different reasons, but I think it’s important to understand a method and try it to see how it can work for you before you simply dismiss it as “not your thing.”

Understanding how POV can add depth and color to a character’s voice can distinguish your work from countless others who submit to publishing houses every day. Every author makes decisions about POV in their books. If an author likes challenges, he or she may test their skill level and try different ways to convey a character’s story as in the classic examples below.

In THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak, the book is about a 14 year old girl who lives during the time of the Holocaust and steals books to read. The narrator of the story is Death. This was one of my favorite young adult reads. The author took a risk to distance the reader from the 14 year old girl in the story. I thought it might have been a mistake when I started reading it, but with the gut wrenching subject matter, I later came to believe the reader needed that distance. And with Death as an outside observer, that brought a beautiful narrative voice (with a literary quality) to the story. In the end, I cried like a baby, despite the distance.

In THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher, this story is about a girl who commits suicide, but leaves 13 audio tapes for the people who helped her make the decision to take her life. Great hook, right? The story is told through the eyes of one boy, but the structure is complicated by the ever present recorded voice of the dead girl, flashbacks to the past they shared, with jumps into the present while he spends one night without sleep, visiting all the places she put on a map. The intimacy of her voice often appears in one simple line or short spurts, mixed with the boy’s POV. As a reader, I got sucked into this story and totally forgot I’m an author. That’s when I know the book is really good—and the author is amazing.

If Zusak and Asher had done the standard POV thing, their critically acclaimed books wouldn’t be the same. I think it’s important for authors to push the envelope on their craft, but it takes understanding craft in order to know how to effectively “break the rules” with good result.

Okay, so here are my random thoughts on POV (from my POV):

1.)    The POV Tango Gets my Freak On - Writing is a creative process and rigid rules don’t always work, but after trying one POV per scene, I’ve learned when to utilize this technique and when NOT TO. In general, I’m a POV purest, but on the rare occasion that I shift POV in a scene, I usually transition it by an action where the reader’s attention is diverted to the new player, such as with a handshake or a meaningful glare that shifts the focus over to the other character where the reader sees their reaction. Keep the break in POV simple by doing it the one time, not back and forth like a tennis match. I may also “break the POV rule” with one sentence, but I smile when I do that. Breaking the POV rule makes me feel frisky, but you can’t fully appreciate a side trip down Freakalishess Boulevard unless you know what being “good” is, right?

2.)    Get into Heads like a Frontal Lobotomy - Developing a full character “voice” is part of what I consider “deep POV.” I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating here. Average writers describe a setting as if they are detailing an inventory. Sure they touched on all the basics to trigger a reader’s senses, but if they allow their minds to fully “free associate” the character’s POV, the technique allows that character to have an opinion of his/her setting. That opinion adds color, depth to the scene, and reflects not only on his or her inner thoughts and nature, but it also sheds light on other characters too.

3.)    Crack the Whip, Dominatrix! - Determining whose POV will dominate the scene can help direct your plot or give a different kind of insight into your main character. For example, red herrings (false clues) can be doled out through the POV of a character who doesn’t know anything, or has reason to lie. Or you can hide the guilt of someone by staying out of their “head.” If you’re stuck in one POV for the entire book—as in first person POV—you have limited options.

4.)    Boingee Boingee…Whatever - Head hopping bounces from character to character, removing the reader from building any great affinity or insight into any one character. This is reason enough to pick a POV per scene. Readers need to get emotionally involved and having a universal narrator describing the scene in omniscient fashion from afar can distance the reader from making any meaningful connection. This worked beautifully in THE BOOK THIEF as I mentioned, because the author told an emotionally charged story, but for the average author, an omniscient POV can sever any hope of a reader connecting with your character(s).

5.)    Dogs are Better than People - Picking the right POV can affect your research. If you don’t feel comfortable writing a police procedural, establish the POV in a character at a crime scene who isn’t a cop. They can be clueless for a reason and you can stay clear of research you don’t feel is “your thing.” Tell a dystopian, post apocalyptic story from the POV of a dog. It could happen.

6.)    Eenie Meenie Mynee Mo, Pick a Loser by the Toe - Selecting the right POV can shove the reader right into the middle of the action or put them in the backseat. For example, in a scene where a guy is undercover and on stake out, he could witness the abduction of a girl. An author could decide to stay in his POV or shift into the girl’s head. Putting the reader into the victim’s head could be scary and more emotional. You can always spring back into Mr. Action’s POV and watch him come to her rescue, but I tend to pick POV by the character with the most to lose. In every scene, I make a choice for a reason. POV doesn’t have to stay with the main character. Be open to new ways to tell a story.

7.)    Name Your Poison - Combining first person with third person POV is tricky but can be done effectively if the transitions are clear. I first tried this in my YA debut book – IN THE ARMS OF STONE ANGELS (Harlequin Teen). I wanted to have the intimacy of a first person narrator through my central character, Brenna Nash, but I also wanted to bring my mystery/thriller techniques to YA and write third person POVs for other characters. The reason I chose to do this was to give the reader insight into some pretty nasty people, so the reader would fear more for my central boy and girl. I also wanted to hide clues to the mystery of who killed Heather. I combined first and third POV in another of my YAs, ON A DARK WING (Harlequin Teen), but after reading other YAs that mixed POVs, I added a tag to the start of every scene in first person. By doing this, I made the transitions easier for the reader to follow.

I'd like to hear from readers who have discovered a great book with an unusual point of view story teller. And from you authors, I'd love to hear any tips you have to share on POV.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The "Cons" of Making Writing a Profession

Last time I posted, I talked about all the great things that go along with making writing your profession. Today let's discuss the cons. Or maybe I should call them 'discomforts' since the word 'con' means against, and I would never want to discourage anyone who wants to write for a living from doing so.

As you might have gathered from my last post, when you make writing your profession, many unforgettable moments are likely to follow. I'll never forget the first time I received a letter from a reader after my debut novel BODY AND SOUL appeared on bookstore shelves. My husband and I were out running errands and we stopped by the post office. He went in while I sat in the car. Minutes later, Jeff came out waving an envelope, a huge smile on his face. "I think you might've just received some fan mail," he said. (He assumed this because the letter was addressed to "Jennifer" Archer, and I'm known as "Jenny" in my non-writing life.) The letter came all the way from Hawaii, and here's what it said:

Dear Ms. Archer, I just finished reading BODY AND SOUL, and I wanted to tell you that it was just about the stupidest book I've ever read. But maybe I just thought so because, before I started it, I read a wonderful book by Danielle Steele.


Yes, my dear fellow writers and readers, writing professionally comes with a downside, too. A few jabs now and then. Some real ego busters. Anti-fan letters qualify, don't you agree? For some reason, the letter struck me as humorous, and I had a good laugh over it. I even sent the anti-fan a cover flat of my upcoming release and asked that she give it a chance to see if she liked it better than BODY AND SOUL. And I told her that since she took the time to tell me how much she hated my book, I hoped she had also taken the time to let Ms. Steele know how much she had enjoyed hers.

Here are a few other discomforts that go along with "author-hood":

1. Deadlines that creep up on you when you aren't looking, and you find yourself in front of the computer for ten hour days only to discover when you write "The End" that your ankles are swollen from all the sitting. Oh, and there's the neck ache and the numb butt, too. Did I mention that?

2. You spend two or three hours at your booksigning with a smile plastered on your face, and when someone finally stops by your table, they ask where the bathroom is located.

3. Loneliness. Being home alone all day, every day, with no outside stimulation or fellow workers to chat with on a break can make a person weird. After my first two months of staying home to write full time, I knew I was crossing over into looney tune territory when I left the house one early evening to go to dinner with my husband and friends and the world beyond my four walls seemed a little too loud and bright and unfamiliar. Yikes. Since then, I've scheduled frequent lunch dates with friends, and I write at the library or in coffee shops from time to time.

But I've found that the toughest thing of all about writing to sell is this...

4. Whether you pursue writing full time or part time, if you want to compose a wonderful story you must be willing to expose yourself, warts and all. To lay everything out on the page uncensored. Let me explain... My mom tells a story about when I was a little girl and she was getting dressed in her bedroom one morning. I was sitting on the bed talking to her at the time, and she was only wearing her underwear. I don't know if I noticed a frown on her face or if I heard her mutter something, but I must have sensed that she wasn't happy with what she saw in the mirror because I said to her sweetly, "Don't worry, Mom, you don't look fat when your clothes are on." (Please note that my mother had and still has a lovely figure!)

That incident is a perfect analogy for the most difficult thing we have to face as writers -- we have to be willing to expose ourselves, to walk around with our clothes off in front of the world. We must pull off our girdles and let all the fat explode onto the page. Ugly thoughts, weaknesses, fears, feelings, emotions. Writers, you must set aside your worries about what people might think of you after they read your words. Will they wonder if you share your characters' nasty habits? Their unorthodox beliefs? Maybe. Probably. I've struggled with this in the past, but no more. Today, my motto: What other people think about me is none of my business.

How about it, writers? What negatives do you face due to the pursuit of your art? And readers--do you wonder how much of the writer exists in the character? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Happy reading and writing!

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Food! Food! Food!

I mentioned before that I was traveling. As you read this, I'll either be getting ready or already on my way back to the States (hint, hint...this is the reason for lack of responses).

One of the things I love best about traveling is trying the local food. Especially so if it is distinctive from the stuff I usually partake in other than once in a while...say Mediterranean, Spanish, African, or pretty much anything in Asia. Well, the last two weeks it's this last that I've been in, specifically Thailand, one of my favorite places on the planet, in large part because of the food!

On this trip I've made it a point to stay away from Western food as much as possible. You could actually eat decent Western food here everyday as there's a large foreign population and many (MANY) tourist. But I've gone the native route, eating Thai food for nearly every meal. The good thing for me is that I love Thai food and am particularly found of the very spicy dishes (which surprises most Thai restaurant workers as they expect farang—foreigners—to want everything tamed down.)

Not going to write a lot as I'm putting this together while I'm still traveling, but thought I'd share some of the dishes I've had, and throwing in a few shots from street vendors, too! Please excuse the fact that I can't remember all the names.

Street Vendor at Work

Skewers Waiting for the Grill


Fried Spring Rolls

Spices to Make Extra Spicy

Satay and Pad Kee Mao

Panang Moo (Moo means Pork



Friday, April 6, 2012

Never give up on that story...

by Michelle Gagnon

I hope you'll excuse a little BSP today. I have a short story out in the new Mystery Writers of America Anthology, VENGEANCE, edited by the wonderful Lee Child. Plus I think there's a lesson to be learned from the long, occasionally tortuous journey this story has had over the past twelve years...

Some background first. This was the first real piece of crime fiction I ever wrote. I composed it while working with the San Francisco Writers' Workshop back in 2000. I've never been much of a short story writer, but at the time I was just diving back into fiction, and figured that playing around with briefer pieces might help me find my voice. So this was one of the first (and only) stories I ever wrote. Shortly afterward, I started working on my first book (the one that never sold), and then, eventually, moved on to writing THE TUNNELS.

I always had a soft spot for this story, but had no idea what to do with it. Filled with hope, I submitted it to a few literary magazines. After it was roundly rejected by them, I shrugged and put it away in a drawer.

Fast forward to 2004. Lee Child was headlining the Book Passage Mystery Writers' Conference, and at the last minute I scraped together enough money to attend. On the last night of the conference, all the participants were invited to read a short piece of fiction, kind of an informal critique exercise. I wasn't happy with the opening of my novel yet, and was considering skipping the event entirely until I remembered this story. So I pulled it out of the drawer, dusted it off, and read it that night. All in all, it was well received; Lee attended the reading, and spoke with me afterward about how much he'd liked it. Which was terribly flattering, but again, I had no idea what to do with it. So back in the drawer it went.

Fast forward another seven years, to 2011. Lee emailed me out of the blue and asked if I'd ever done anything with that story from the Book Passage reading. He explained that he was putting together an anthology for the MWA centered around the theme of vigilante justice, and thought my piece might fit in perfectly. He asked if it would be all right to include it. Once I finished turning cartwheels across the room, I said yes.

So this week my little story, the first piece of crime fiction I ever wrote, was published alongside the work of some of my idols, including Lee, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, and Zoe Sharp. To say that I was honored to be part of this anthology would be a tremendous understatement. It really is a dream come true.

And from it, I've learned a few things:

a) It's impossible to judge the true value of a writing conference. Sometimes they might seem like a waste of time and money, but you never know what may come of the contacts you make there.

b) Never empty that drawer. The story that can't find a home today might bear fruit years down the road (or even decades!)

c) Never give up. I have to confess, when those literary magazines first snubbed my work, I was disheartened and almost tossed in the towel. I really thought the story was pretty great, and discovering that not everyone agreed was crushing. It was hard to go on when it felt like what I was writing might never be appreciated, or even read, by anyone outside my critique group. Eight published or soon-to-be-published novels (and one short story) later, I'm really happy that I decided to forge ahead.

What follows is an excerpt from my story, IT AIN'T RIGHT. The VENGEANCE Anthology is currently on sale at bookstores and online.


“It ain’t right, is all I’m saying.”

Joe just kept walking the way he always did, shovel over his shoulder, cigarette clinging to his bottom lip.

“You hear me?”

He stopped and turned, lifting his head inch by inch until his eyes found my hips then my breasts then my eyes. A dustdevil whirred away behind him, making the bottom branches of the tree dance like girls on Mayday, up and down. He stared at me long and hard, and I felt the last heat of the day seeping into my skin and down through my bones, reaching inside to meet the cold that burrowed in my stomach early that morning.

“She’s dead, ain’t she?” With his free hand he scratched his belly where the bottom of his ‘Joe’s Diner’ shirt had pulled away.

“Yeah, but just cause she’s dead don’t mean she should be put down like this.”

He looked past me, towards where the road met the hill and dove behind it, wheat tips glowing pink in the twilight. “What else we gonna do with her?”

Thursday, April 5, 2012

So Long, Farewell...

by Wendy Corsi Staub

I've frequently mentioned here that it isn't always easy to juggle being an author with being a mom. Okay, that's an understatement: it's NEVER easy. That's actually an understatement, too. Some days, it's all but impossible.

Today is one of those days. As I just confessed to my fellow blogsters, I'm overwhelmed--in the very best way, of course. I'm blessed to have two teenaged sons who are happy and healthy and thriving, and I'm thrilled to announce that I just (literally, about an hour ago) signed a new three-book contract with Harpercollins to write another adult suspense trilogy. All three books have to be written within the next 18 months--during which I'll be launching and promoting my current trilogy with Harper, as well as seeing my younger son through the remainder of middle school and into high school, and seeing my older son through high school graduation and off to college. So in the immediate future, I'm going to shift my focus to concentrate on writing, touring, and not missing a single moment with my boys. That means saying goodbye--at least for now--to blogging here at Adr3nalin3.

It's been a pleasure to get to know many of you, as well as my fellow bloggers. I'll continue to visit and read their posts, as well as maintain an active presence on Facebook and my own community website. Please come visit me there! Thank you for all the support!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Seven ways my antagonist is way tastier than a cookie…

By A.G. Howard

Just like the best heroes and heroines, every antagonist needs layers so they won't be cliché, aka: a cookie cutter bad guy who’s like all of the other desserts at the buffet.

Here are seven ingredients that I'm hoping will set the mystical Morpheus, my naughty hotty in Splintered, apart from the other cookies:

1. He has wings.

Granted, there are lots of faerie stories where the bad boy has wings. But the way Morpheus “got” his wings is a bit different. Not to mention he uses them for more than flying. At any given point in the story they might become: a shield, a cape, a weapon, shade from the sun, and lastly and most fun, a means of seduction.

2. He thinks he’s a rock star. Could be because he bears a stunning resemblance to a smokin’ cult phenom: Brandon Lee’s The Crow.

Whatever the case, he has no self-esteem issues. In fact, he’s downright arrogant and narcissistic at times. But it only makes him more loveable; just ask him. ;)

3. He has unique quirks. For one, he collects moths by the thousands. Not only living ones, but moth corpses to embellish his hats. Which leads to his fashion obsessions. Morpheus, despite his obvious masculinity, is partial to retro-renaissance fashion. He’ll take a crushed velvet suit with lacy cuffs over a pair of jeans and t-shirt any day. Here’s an example of something he might wear on a casual afternoon strolling around Wonderland:

4. He dabbles in dreams.

This characteristic actually inspired his name … well, there’s one other contributing factor, but you’ll have to read the book to discover it. Heh. The Morpheus in Greek mythology is the god of dreams and has the ability to take any human form and appear in someone’s sleep. His true semblance is that of a winged daemon. All the more reason for my bad boy to have wings.

5. He has a  hidden soft spot for the heroine, Alyssa. It makes an appearance from time to time, but he tries to cover it up with self-adulation and snarky remarks aimed at Alyssa or her best friend/secret crush, leading back to point #2:

6. He’s the master of weaseling deals through word manipulation. Like most fae-related creatures, Morpheus has a penchant for word wizardry: he takes everything said as literal, and twists it this way and that, making it mean what HE wants it to mean.

7. He has phobias. The most important thing in the world to Morpheus is his freedom. Nothing terrifies him more than being bound and powerless. This is something he has in common with Alyssa, which makes their relationship all the more complex, especially when her freedom threatens his own.


I've found that the layered villains/antagonists -- the ones with a variation of ingredients -- are the most affecting to me personally. Maybe because when they’re humanized and given relatable motivations and fears, I’m taken to that place of personal introspection where I question if I were in a similar situation, would I take on the same characteristics and make the same choices?

Often, I even start rooting for those antagonists in spite of my disdain for their actions, hoping that they’ll somehow redeem themselves in the end. The best books not only have fully developed heroes/heroines, but antagonists too. Because nobody wants a dessert buffet loaded with nothing but stale sugar cookies.

So, who are some of your favorite antagonists from recent or past reads, and what ingredients set them apart from other antagonists you've seen?

All photos supplied by and