Friday, January 29, 2010

Plotting? Moi? Guest Post by Terry Odell for the Conspiracy

findingsarah_frontmsr Thanks to Terry Odell for guest posting today. Terry’s books straddle the mystery and romance genres and you can find out more about them here. *******************

I'm not a plotter or an outliner. I tried. Really tried. Went to all those workshops about storyboarding. But after a short time, all I could think was, "enough of this." I don't do character sheets, because that's as much of an "enough of this" exercise as plotting.

For me, writing is a matter of moving in short bursts, and keeping track of what's happened, or where I think I might want to go. But as Nora Roberts is famous for saying, "I can't fix a blank page." So I write and see what happens.

First writing of the day is looking at what I wrote the day before. It's had time to settle, and the typos tend to rise to the top. It also gives me a running start for new material. I have an on-line critique group, and if they've given me feedback, I'll decide what needs to be addressed. If they catch a plot hole, I have to fix it before going further.

Late afternoons and evenings, I write new stuff. That's simply the way my mental rhythms work out; everyone deals with their own schedules.

My current manuscript was my first straight mystery, and I thought I might drag out the storyboard again. Still a no go. But I did find I could use it to keep track of what I'd written, and also of ideas for scenes, plot points, character moments. I used two separate boards: one for the ideas, and one for tracking the story.

First came the ideas. Plain and simple, it was brainstorming. Lots of "what if" thoughts. For previous books, I'd done it on a computer document, but having the physical sticky notes to pick up and move around gave me a better visual, and made it easy to change things. As I dealt with each 'idea' I'd either toss it or put it on the story board in the appropriate chapter box.

Since I've been "trained" in romance, I tend to focus on the big GMC: Goal, Motivation & Conflict for each character. I would figure out what my characters wanted, why they wanted it, and why they couldn't have it. Again, a lot of trial and error. For example, in the book I just finished, the underlying motivation was for Justin to find a "secret something" (at the beginning of the book, that was enough for me) at his grandparents' home. A big question I ask myself all through the process is "why". So, why would Justin want something? And, the bigger why: Why doesn't he just ask his grandparents for it? They love him; they'd probably give it to him. So figuring out what "it" was required a lot of discarded ideas.

But I don't need to know exactly what it is right away. Heck, I didn't even know who the villain was until at least halfway through the book. I strongly believe that our subconscious minds will know, or at least lead us in that direction.

Using colored post-its made it easy to see at a glance where the story was going. I learned what I needed to track and started adding things like where the scene took place, what secondary characters appeared, what clues were revealed, what day it was, etc. I used big sticky notes for the POV characters; a different color for each. I used smaller ones for the secondary characters, locale, etc. By the end, the story board was jam-packed, and my idea board was almost empty. If I'd looked at the empty board and tried to fill in before I started writing – well, "enough of this."

So, I suppose if I had to summarize my writing technique, it would be plan a little, write a little, fix a little. Rinse. Repeat. When I finally get to "The End" I do tightening edits, but by then, the story should (note "should", not "is") be complete. After the tightening comes the polishing, where I'll find the rest of those problem children that have risen to the top. But, again I don't play by the rules. I can't write scenes out of order. If I'm waiting for feedback on a critical point, rather than write ahead and take the chance everything will unravel when I find out whether the cops can actually do what I want them to, then I'll do some polishing. Maybe I'll plug a chapter into and see what words I'm overusing. Or make sure my transitions are clean, or my dialogue isn't drivel.

If you want to see how my storyboard technique worked for me, there's a summary on my website.

Hope this helped someone – I'll be happy to answer questions. And I chat about other aspects of writing at my own blog, Terry's Place,


Thanks so much, Terry! I love finding out how other authors plan and write their books. And that storyboard is very cool-looking—Elizabeth Spann Craig

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Calls to Adventure—Elizabeth Spann Craig

Road Through a Winter Landscape--1931 Maybe your protagonist is an international spy. His days are rarely boring since he’s always hopping a plane to a dangerous spot on the other side of the world.

Or not.

For most of us? Our protagonists are fairly ordinary people—like we are. But something extraordinary happens to them, pulling them out of their routine.

The moment when the story really starts has been called the “Call to Adventure” in the hero’s journey, as detailed by author Joseph Campbell.

In my books? My characters are just minding their own business when they discover a dead body.

There are many other calls that form the genesis of stories.


Are confronted with a challenge—he must go on a dangerous trek to destroy an evil ring in a fiery volcano.

Are put in an extraordinary situation. This could be a plane crash, a sinking ship, a devastating natural disaster or a devastating manmade disaster (war, terrorism, etc.) A group of British schoolboys try to survive on an island after their plane is shot down during World War II. Or...a girl discovers a magical wardrobe is the gateway to another world.

Are asked for help. A Harvard professor gets an emergency phone call in the middle of the night. The curator of the Louvre has been murdered. Can he help solve a mysterious cipher?

Are on a quest for a treasure. Can Charlie find the golden ticket? Can he survive the tour of the factory to obtain a greater prize?

Meet their soul mate…the call of their heart. But the journey to a relationship is a rocky one. Twilight, anyone?

Realize their dream—and follow it. A girl realizes she wants nothing more than to return home. She embarks on a remarkable journey, encountering dangerous obstacles along the way.

The protagonist makes a decision—do they answer this call? Are they reluctant to accept? Are they dutiful, eager, terrified? Their reactions to the call help introduce the reader to the character.

Calls to Adventure usually come fairly early in a book. As a reader, I like knowing what direction the story is heading in—the sooner, the better.

Has your protagonist heard a call? How did he or she answer it?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A new dog in the house by Joyce Lavene

Our dog, Bear, died in 2008. He was a black lab, 15 years old (the oldest black lab our vet had ever seen). It was a terrible death because he suffered in the last few days. Then we had to make the decision to have the vet kill him (why call it putting him down?)I kept hoping he'd die during the last night so I wouldn't have to make that decision.

I held him and sobbed as he died. He'd lived a good life, I assured myself. We'd rescued him from the pound when he was barely a year old. He was my shadow after that, moving from place to place with me in the house or outside. He never deserted me.

The day he died, people started telling me I should get a new dog. I couldn't. The memory of Bear's death was too fresh and painful. I couldn't even think about it.

But last year, a friend of mine who'd lost her dog around the same time got a new dog. I started thinking about how much I missed having a dog around the house. I waited, hoping the right dog would come to me. 2009 passed without that happening.

I needed a smaller dog (Bear was very big)and a dog who'd survive being with my cat, Quincy, who is a handful. Again, I felt like the right dog would come to me. I just had to wait. Since being a published writer means being patient, this was easy.

Then Barbara from the Stanly County Animal Rescue League (SCARL) sent me some information about a dog that was found almost starved to death in a local park during a recent cold snap. She sent me a picture and I asked about him. He had the sweetest face.

Monday morning, as the newspaper was set to run a story about the dog found abandoned in the park, Barbara stopped in with him on her way back from the vet. She told me she'd never done anything like that even after rescuing 44 animals with SCARL. She apologized for pushing him on me and said she just felt like he was right for me.

It turned out that she was right. I took Rudi home that day. He's very thin (you can count every bone in his body) but he's holding his own. He hates to go outside which presents some potty issues but I think we can get over that. He's very laid back (which helps with the cat)and all he wants is some love. I can handle that part.

Of course, a new dog means new issues, especially a puppy. But when he looks up at me and wags his little tail, I know he's worth it. I will always love Bear but there is room in my heart for Rudi too.

Joyce Lavene

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Should You Tell People About Your WIP?—by Elizabeth Spann Craig

Girl Reading--Eugen Spiro-1874-1972 “So, what are you working on now?”

Do you mind telling people about your WIP (work in progress)? Or does it make you grit your teeth when they ask? Do you wonder why people never ask accountants what they’re working on?

Usually, if you’re out of the writing closet, this is a question that you’re going to get from time to time. I get it pretty frequently from acquaintances who know I write.

Upside of telling them:

You get ideas—If I tell you about my WIP or you’re a first reader and you offer some ideas? I’m not shy about taking them. Sometimes you can even adapt an idea and change it into something really useful. Both Dorte and Hart have given me great ideas for two separate books (one a Myrtle, one a Memphis.) I love ideas. And they’ll be in my acknowledgments section!

You get accountability—The next time you see this person, they’re likely again to ask (right after they finish commenting on the weather), “So how is that book going? The one with the murdered supper club guest. Have you finished it yet?”

You get encouragement—“That’s a cool idea for a book. Where do you get your ideas from?”


You might not have fully formed the plot yet. You might not be able to really even say what exactly it’s about. So you halfway describe it and the person you’re talking to looks confused. Because it is confusing—it’s not a solidified plot.

You might not be in the spot where you want to share your WIP’s plot because it’s malleable. And you don’t want it transformed before you figure out where you’re trying to go with it.

When you share your idea, some people may criticize it or appear disinterested when you tell them about it. When it’s in the formative stages, that’s not fun. Then you start second-guessing your plot.

Accountability in a negative way. I’ve told people about WIPs that later ended up in my manuscript graveyard. Then every time I see these particular people, they ask about it. And it’s been 1 1/2 years since I even picked the darned thing up. I’ll tell them I put it aside to work on something else (something I was paid to write, which is always given a priority!) and they’ll say, “But I really liked that idea!” I want to tell them they’re free to write it…

Reading this over, it looks like I’m seeing more of the downside to WIP sharing. I wouldn’t have said that, going into this post. Maybe it just depends on the person I’m sharing the info with. If he’s a writer, that’s one thing (he’d understand.) If I’m sharing with non-writers? Maybe I should keep it vague.

Do you tell people what you’re working on?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Writing in a 'real' place - by Joyce Lavene

Books are either set in a real place; Chicago, the Congo, Venezuela, or a place in the writer's imagination: Oz, Mars, an underwater city. Maybe you write stories with characters based in your old hometown or your characters travel to exotic locations you may have never been.

Whatever your setting preference, it can be as important to the story as characters and plot. Setting, in many cases, becomes another character you have to work with in your story. Winter storms set back an investigation, high seas cause chaos or a murder victim is found drowned on a dry, hot day in the desert.

There are also the little details, especially in books where the setting is real. How long does it take to get from the airport to a particular hotel in Boston? What are the streets like in Minneapolis, Minnesota? Can you take a train through Charlotte, North Carolina? These details make readers crazy when they know the right answers and the author telling the story doesn't.

When Jim and I wrote the Peggy Lee Garden Mysteries, we made every detail of the area where Peggy lived and worked as accurate as we could. People actually emailed us that they couldn't find her shop in Brevard Court in Charlotte. Some of them were a little put out because they wanted to stop by and say hello.

Then we started writing the Ren Faire Mysteries. This wasn't a 'real' place at all but rather the best of many places put together in the old Air Force base in Myrtle Beach, SC. We figured that area could handle a full-time Renaissance Faire. Readers seem to get that it isn't a real place, although many have told us they would like to live there if it ever is.

Now we're writing the Missing Pieces Mysteries set in a real place again; Duck, NC. We loved the name and the area when we were down there and thought it would be a great place for mysteries, filled with pirate lore, legend and ghosts. But Duck isn't very big and our editor wasn't sure how people at tiny, one of a kind shops would feel about murder investigations tromping through there.

So we tried to stay as true to the real Duck as we could without actually using real names. The places exist but their names, as it goes, have been changed to protect the innocent. Will people who live in (or visit) Duck know them? I won't know until May when the first book comes out.

But if any Duck, NC shop, hotel or restaurant would LIKE for us to kill someone there, please let us know. We'd be happy to do so, if only for the sake of setting realism.

A Timely Vision
Book 1 in the Missing Pieces Mysteries
May 4, 2010

Sunday, January 3, 2010

More thoughts on stories By Kathleen Delaney

More thoughts on stories

Christmas is over, the packages that were wrapped so intriguingly have been ripped open, the gifts examined, cookies have been decorated and devoured, and only the most intrepid poinsettia is still clinging to life.

It was fun. It’s always fun, and, as always, its left me with some lingering thoughts.

This year, I got one of my granddaughters an American Girl doll. Dalia is eight and wanted one desperately. Her mother is a single mom and just couldn’t afford one. Dalia knew that, and didn’t even ask for one, but both her mother and I knew how much she wanted one. So-Grandma got on ebay, a new and rather scary experience, and Dalia got Felicity, an American Girl who lived in Williamsburg in the eighteenth century.

One of the reasons I wanted this doll was because of Felicity’s story. I have taken Dalia and her brother, Ronaldo, to Kings Mountain and to Cowpen’s national monument. We’ve gone through the museum, watched the movie, examined the manikins wearing the Colonial uniforms and the Indians wearing practically nothing, and have walked the trails. They are fascinated. They know that the battle of Cowpens was during the Revolutionary War, and know, and can tell you, some of the stories about the war. They know where Williamsburg is, mainly because Grandma loves Williamsburg and keeps bringing them back stuff from her trips there, and has promised to take them there as well.

Felicity comes with a book, a story about her life during the Revolutionary war, and Dalia was delighted to think her doll was part of what we had been talking about, and is already reading the book. It makes her doll and the period she represents real and personal.

Which brings me to my real point. Stories. Most of the history I know came from novels. Big fat historical novels, thin little stories with lots of pictures, dramatic sagas of terror and courage, they are what brought history alive. Remember Rabble in Arms? I haven’t read that book in years, but it was what brought the American Revolution to life for me, not droning teachers who made me memorize dates and names. Drama was what I wanted, real people in real trouble and a book that could explain why. Much better than reality TV. Want to know about the Civil War? Gone With The Wind will give you one very strong perspective, and when you visit Savannah or Charleston, you’ll share that genteel life with Scarlet. Then read Roots.

But stories don’t just teach us about history, as fascinating as that is. Staying in the south, think about “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s a close up look at prejudice and what it does to people, and what it does to people who resist its insidious delights. This book looks at a couple of different kinds of prejudice, or maybe not. Maybe prejudice itself is pretty much the same emotion, it just manifests itself a little differently depending on who the victim is.

Stories teach us about people, because that’s what a story is all about. How did the Revolutionary War effect the everyday life of our great great grandparents, if they were living here then, how did they make their decisions which side to back, and how did the stress of war color their lives? Scarlet lets us know how the Civil War colored hers, and that of her family. Roots tells us in no uncertain terms what it was like to be black during a large part of our countries history, and we can go on and on. Fiction plays an unbelievably valuable part in our understanding of our world, and the people who inhabit it. It helps us understand how people react in times of stress, great stress as in war, or more personal stress as in sickness, divorce, or even murder. Maybe that’s why we of the Carolina Conspiracy write mysteries. We can explore how an ordinary person will react to something as terrifying as unexplained death, and how they cope.

One last thought. Coping. When I was little, I read Pollyanna. Every book. Pollyanna isn’t fashionable any more, and she is usually portrayed as a rather sappy little girl who goes around with a holier than thou attitude, trying to do good and making everyone who’s normal want to throw up. But that’s not what those books were about. They’re about coping, about a little girl who has lost her mother and father, is sent to live with a very grumpy aunt, and is just plain scared. But she had already learned to cope. That’s what the whole book is about, and I’m mighty glad I read it, and that I learned from it. There have been a number of times in my life when that coping skill came in real handy, and this last year was certainly among them. So thanks, Pollyanna, and thanks to all you writers out there who have laid out the world, and the people in it, in stories that help us understand our world a little better, and what makes other people tick. Just maybe you help us understand ourselves a little better as well.

A word to those of you who are writers or are trying to be, when you are mapping out your next plot, remember that adversity is a good thing. More than that, it is a part of life we can’t avoid and the stuff that good stories are made of. So think about Pollyanna, and get your characters to sharpen up those coping skills.

Classes--by Elizabeth Spann Craig

Rembrandt van Rijn-- Rembrandt’s Mother Reading-- 1629 You don't have to spend a lot of money to become a better writer. You can use your library card and get more information than you can ever find time to absorb.

Sometimes, though, we need a little extra help. When I was writing my first book, I was definitely aware of areas where I had shortcomings. I wanted more information on “show, don’t tell.” I wanted to know how to write a well-crafted synopsis. I wanted to learn more about creating well-rounded characters.

So, I took online classes. And they worked out really well.

Like anything, it depends on the instructor. But the classes I had, that were taught by working writers. And I only sought out classes that were in the $30-$50 range. Some of them, like the Blog Book Tour class, were free.

In my experience with online classes, they work like this:

*You go to the website find the class you’re interested in. Usually you pay via PayPal or credit card.

*You then will be joined to a Yahoo group, which goes active on the first day of the class.

*The classes that I took usually lastly four weeks, with two lessons posted a week.

*Everyone in the class will introduce themselves on the email loop. The instructor introduces himself/herself, gives his/her qualifications, and then provides the syllabus.

*The instructor gives a first lesson, usually in some detail, and with examples of vivid characterization, or plotting, or whatever the class is covering.

*The lesson ended with an exercise for the class members to do individually, then post back to the email loop. The instructor gives feedback on each individual person’s assignment and answers any questions. Usually you have a certain number of days to post on an assignment before you’re expected to move to the next posted lesson and assignment.

There are classes online that run into the hundreds of dollars. I really just can’t recommend those. I think you can get much the same experience, on a wide variety of topics, at a much lower rate.

Here are some links to online organizations and sites that sponsor online classes and their calendar of upcoming workshops. The classes range from $15 to $50.

Have you taken any online classes? What did you like or dislike about them?