Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Putting the "Boo" in Your Book

The night was cold and dark.
"Listen to the wind howling in the trees," said Frog. "What a fine time for a ghost story."
Toad moved deeper into his chair.
"Toad," asked Frog, "don’t you like to be scared? Don’t you like to feel the shivers?"
"I am not too sure," said Toad.
Days with Frog and Toad, "Shivers" by Arnold Lobel

I sometimes fear that, if I admit this, then I'll be asked to tear up my "I'm a good Christian" card, but here goes: I love Halloween! I love the scary costumes, the ghost stories (anyone want to discuss the etymology of the word daemon?), and the whole shootin' match. My theological defense of the holiday goes something like this: "Halloween is the one time of year that Americans face three vital truths they spend the rest of the year denying: a) the reality of life after death, b) the reality of the supernatural realm, and c) the reality of evil." But I digress. For those who want to discuss more the value of scary stories or Halloween in general, I'll refer you to Erin Newcomb's excellent post on the subject at Patheos.com called "All Hallow's Read: Why We Should Read Scary Stories for Halloween."

For this post, I want to discuss how to write a genuinely scary story. How do I, as a writer, create something that just scares the pants off of my readers? That gives them "the shivers." 

I don't often experience the shivers from books. There is, however, one memorable moment where a book genuinely frightened me. Naturally and oddly enough, it was a Stephen King book. I say "naturally," because he's supposedly the master of it. And I say "oddly," because, as I mentioned, I usually don't get the shivers when I read. Not sure why, but it doesn't happen that often. Except, of course, for that one time. 

I was flying south into Houston to visit my folks, and I happened to be reading The Stand, which, for those who don't know, is about the destruction of civilization through the accidental escape of a government engineered supervirus. So here I am reading about people dying in their own snot and the spread of "Captain Trips" (as the flu was called) through the globe, and the guy in the seat behind me sneezes.

Right there, I nearly jumped outta my chair. And right after that, I took my hat off to Professor King, and I said, "I want to learn how to do that."

At this point, I haven't written anything that might be classified as "horror." I mostly stick with thrillers and action-adventure novels. But I am told that my writing is quite scary. I think it has something to do with writing about the worst case scenarios politically-speaking.

So how do I, as a writer, give someone the shivers? In no particular order, here are some thoughts:

Make Your Monster Sympathetic
I'll start here. And when I use the term "Monster," I mean all manner of monsters: supernatural, human, animal. If you're going to write about a monster, make them a little sympathetic. It's too easy to paint bad guys with a broad, black brush. Humanize them a bit, especially if they really are (or at least, at one time, were) human. Making a monster sympathetic means pointing out the spark of the Imago Dei resident in all created things. The goal of this is not to make the monster less scary or less evil, but simply to create an emotional attachment in your reader, to hold a mirror up to their soul and help them recognize the darkness within. The difference between the man and the monster is a matter of degree, not kind. Holding up the mirror to my own internal darkness creates the sense of recoil, the pulling back in horror from what is down in the abyss of my soul. 

In Stephen King's story, Storm of the Century (oddly enough, I'm writing this just as Hurricane Sandy is about to hit town), the demon at the heart of the story is humanized by his desire to reproduce after his kind: to take one of the villagers' children and make him his own. We can understand his desire to have children, but it is in conflict with a) our own desire to protect our children from someone who would take them for his own ends, and b) our own desire to ensure that evil does not grow or continue. This creates the core element of the horror.

Take Ordinary Things and Twist Them Slightly
Put things out of context. Make regular, ordinary objects the key vessels for communicating horror. You want your reader to think, "Something's wrong," without clearly identifying the nature of the wrong. A child's tricycle in the lawn is one thing. A child's tricycle in the middle of the street with the wheels spinning suggests something else entirely. 

Steven Spielberg is a master of this, especially in his earlier works. Take Close Encounters of the Third Kind (or even the more recent Super 8 with all its homages to the earlier film). The frightening aspect of the aliens is not the lights in the sky, but rather the effect they have on ordinary objects. The toys in Barry's room in Muncie, Indiana light up and make noise. No big deal. But they do this in the middle of the night, without being turned on or plugged in. Creepy. 

C.S. Lewis described something similar in That Hideous Strength, when Mark Studdock is compelled to sit in a room that will obliterate any sense of how things "should be" in his mind. The room itself is ill-proportioned. There are dots, not quite round, on the ceiling that resist counting, and more on the table that almost but not quite correspond to the ones on the ceiling. And there are paintings along the walls, surrealistic efforts that twist the mind. He writes, 
What was the curious trick of lighting that made each picture look like something seen in delirium? When once these questions had been raised the apparent ordinariness of the pictures became their supreme menace--like the ominous surface innocence at the beginning of certain dreams. Every fold of drapery, every piece of architecture had a meaning one could not grasp but which withered the mind. Compared with these the other, surrealistic, pictures were mere foolerly. Long ago, Mark had read somewhere of "things of that extreme evil which seem innocent to the uninitiate," and had wondered what sort of things they might be. Now he felt he knew.
Don't Show The Monster... Yet
A third thing, in the building of suspense and terror, is to resist showing or explaining the monster too quickly. The revelation of the monster, as well as the humanizing of the monster, should come much later in your story, if at all.

In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings we never actually see Sauron the Deceiver. The most we can conceive of him is a lidless eye, wreathed in flame. The rest of the monster is never actually shown.

Or take Jaws as an example. The shark isn't really seen in its entirety until the final, climactic battle aboard the Orca. Up till then, all we have is scary mood music and people screaming as they disappear underwater, surface, and then disappear again. Oh, and a fin coming toward us. Closer. Closer.

Don't let your reader see the monster's face until you're ready to show them that it's a mirror to their own darkness (in Jaws the shark is motivated by hunger and a desire to protect her young. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is driven by his thirst for power). And don't reveal the monster until you're near the climax of the story. Seeing the monster revealed should happen just prior to the climax. From here there should be a very quick decision on the part of the protagonist--whether to fight the evil or surrender and succumb. And this itself better be a very real choice. You want to evoke the fight or flight response in your reader. You want the "fight" response to be the desired choice, but for that same reason, it has to be the most difficult, most costly choice your characters can make. It is the choice that will require the protagonist to finally face his or her fatal flaw, and come to terms with the necessity of sacrifice to achieve victory.

Ratchet Up the Pace
A truly scary book starts off at a leisurely walk, then a little faster, then a jog, then an all out run, panting, wheezing, stumbling, until you make that final leap from the precipice. Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart is worth studying in this regard, if just for the way he handles the pacing. He starts off with a quick jolt to grab our attention:
TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story. 
 And then he continues, slowing the pace down with longer sentences that allow us to catch our breath. But only for a moment. Notice the length of these sentences:
When I had waited a long time very patiently without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little -- a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it -- you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily -- until at length a single dim ray like the thread of the spider shot out from the crevice and fell upon the vulture eye.
It was open, wide, wide open, and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness -- all a dull blue with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones, but I could see nothing else of the old man's face or person, for I had directed the ray as if by instinct precisely upon the damned spot.
And then finally, as we hasten to the climax, observe how short the clauses have become, and how quickly they run together as we leap from the precipice of the narrator's sanity:
No doubt I now grew VERY pale; but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased -- and what could I do? It was A LOW, DULL, QUICK SOUND -- MUCH SUCH A SOUND AS A WATCH MAKES WHEN ENVELOPED IN COTTON. I gasped for breath, and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly, more vehemently but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why WOULD they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men, but the noise steadily increased. O God! what COULD I do? I foamed -- I raved -- I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder -- louder -- louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly , and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! -- no, no? They heard! -- they suspected! -- they KNEW! -- they were making a mockery of my horror! -- this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! -- and now -- again -- hark! louder! louder! louder! LOUDER! --
"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! -- tear up the planks! -- here, here! -- it is the beating of his hideous heart!"
Through repetition of sentences (but the noise steadily increased), words (louder, louder, louder!), and more reliance on words with hard consonants Poe ratchets the tension and flings us into the dark.

Write What Scares You
Finally, remember this caveat: if your writing doesn't scare you, it probably won't scare anyone else, either. There are moments, when I'm composing a thriller, where I genuinely creep myself out. If I don't, then I can't honestly say the story is a thriller.

Thomas Harris described something similar when he writes about how he first met Hannibal Lecter in The Red Dragon, that he became frightened himself when Lecter recognized Will Graham by smelling him.
"That's the same atrocious aftershave you wore in court, three years ago."
 Yikes! Bottom line: if you're going to scare your readers, you have to scare yourself first.
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Monday, October 29, 2012

The Lofty Semicolon


As in all professions--all of life, actually--there are people behind the scenes known only as "the powers that be," the nebulous and unidentified "they." The same is true for authors. Whoever "they" are, those powers that be, they have deemed the semicolon to be too formal for fiction writing. I'm not certain I agree; all writing tools should be available for all authors, and that includes tools of punctuation.

These powers also say that the semicolon has no place in dialogue: "No one speaks in semicolons," someone once explained to me. That hit me as rather bizarre at the time. If we were to describe what people "speak" in, we'd be limited to dashes, periods, and long strings of run-on sentences. Dialogue is supposed to be natural, but not necessarily realistic, which is why hesitation utterances are kept at a minimum regardless of how often they are heard in real discourse. But I can see the point that a semicolon is too formal for written dialogue. Which is why, as an editor, I mark it every time.

I'll mark it just as quickly in the prose when it's used incorrectly, and what I'm discovering is, more often than not, it is used incorrectly. Like every other punctuation mark, the semicolon has rules, and apparently fiction authors need to be reminded what they are.

A semicolon can be used:
    1. instead of a conjunction (and, but, or) to join two complete sentences together that have different subjects: I wanted pizza; he wanted hamburgers. 
    2. to introduce a clause beginning with therefore, however, indeed, namely, etc.: We couldn't agree on what to eat; therefore, Suzanne offered a different choice. 
    3. in front of therefore, however, namely, etc. when a list is involved: We had three choices then; namely pizza, hamburgers, and Chinese take-out.
    4. to join two complete sentences along with a conjunction when one or more commas are in the first sentence: Since we were in Suzanne's car, we decided the choice should be hers; so she drove us to Pei Wei's.
Nonfiction and scholastic authors should learn all four of these uses, but I think fiction writers would agree that numbers two through four are too formal. Using words like therefore, however, namely, and any of their equivalents in fiction adds a stilted formality to the prose that few authors strive for--unless they are presenting a stilted, formal character. The semicolons can be replaced with commas, the clauses can be split into two sentences, conjunctions can be used.

Number one should be the most common use of the semicolon for fiction writers. Tying two sentences together into one thought with a semicolon is sometimes necessary for the mood or tone the author is trying to set, so I'm not as quick to mark out its use--unless it's used so often it becomes distracting, which I've discovered in many of the manuscripts I've edited lately. So, along with the four listed above, the big rules for the use of semicolons are: 1. use sparingly and 2. use correctly.

Novelists are ruled by The Chicago Manual of Style. If ever there is a doubt about the proper use of a semicolon, check out sections 6.54-6.58.

I know this was dry and boring--just like my old grammar classes were. I'll try not to do this often; but meantime, thanks for letting me get this off my chest!
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Friday, October 26, 2012

Steven Brust's Priceless Moment


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Steven-brust-photo-by-kyle-cassidy.jpg
This anecdote requires minimal setup. Steven Brust is an author known for his cool stuff writing philosophy. His editor at Tor is the legendary Teresa Nielsen Hayden. They had the following exchange at this year's Viable Paradise writers' workshop:

SB: Teresa, have you ever noticed that knitting is a lot like literary criticism?
TNH (staring): Yes, but how does a non-knitter know that?
SB: I just assumed.
This exchange says everything you need to know about Steve and about Teresa (and why I love SF/F authors and editors).
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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Sensual Writer: Smell


The Sensual Writer
Smell vs. Aroma

 

Let’s take a little quiz. True or false:


Men have a better sense of smell than women.


Proper training can enhance human ability to smell.


Infants can pick out their mothers by scent.


Steel has its own aroma.


The inability to smell can affect your weight.


Once you lose your sense of smell, you’ll never regain it.


If you can’t smell a particular food, you can’t taste it either.

 
Teenagers have the greatest sensory reception.

 
People who cannot smell anything else can usually smell menthol.

 
Your left nostril processes pleasant smells and your left nostril, unpleasant odors.

 
(Come back on November 12 to check the answers.)

 

A part of your brain touches the atmosphere.

Let’s see a show of hands: how many of you already knew this?

 
Where, you ask? Does my brain leave the confines of my skull?
 

Well, it’s like this: Way back in our nasal passages we have about a square-inch-sized area of olfactory receptors. As we inhale we breathe in dissolved particles wash over these receptors which have millions of cilia extending from a little projection of bone at the tip of the neuron – and thus, a part of the brain extends into the your nasal passage to detect emulsions, send the information to the brain which then analyses the scent according to our experience, and tells us how to identify it.  
 
The sense of smell is one of two senses, along with taste, humans are most willing to do without. Yet smell is often the most evocative of our senses. It is a powerful link to memories . The sense of smell and the sense of taste are not exactly related, yet are closely tied due to the types and placement of physical sensor receptors in our bodies – namely that of mouth/tongue/nostrils/sinuses.
 
 
I’m separating this sense, as I have the others, into two aspects: the physical ability – to smell; and the layered reaction to that ability: aroma. Even the word “aroma” is so much more elegant than others we might use, don’t you think? You are trained to react to words: when you read “smell” what goes through your mind? How about “scent?” Or “odor?” You react negatively or positively, depending on your experience, and the words we generally associate with them. A remembered scent can take us to an associated experience often more quickly than sight, sound, or even touch.
 
The human sense of smell is a complex chemical process, trainable, begins at birth and peaks somewhere in the teens when we have learned and categorized the scents in our world. How does a writer use this sense when layering a scene? Using a particular aroma can bridge flashbacks, when used sparingly; a particular scent can generate new information or a repressed memory. An odor can introduce a sense of dread or danger. A bouquet can tell your reader much about the personality of a discerning character. One of my favs is Steven James’s Patrick Bowers who is a coffee snob; he has trained himself, much like a connoisseur of fine wines, to tell where a coffee bean came from and how it was prepared. Just kind of cool.
 
If you’re going to introduce a memorable quirk in a character, the ability to detect a certain scent might be intriguing. Conversely, the lack of ability to smell, either at all (anosmia) or the loss of ability to detect particular scents can be just as revealing. A change or loss in the sense of smell also may indicate a genetic condition, a disease or injury that can affect a character’s life/health, as well as that of his or her environment and family, work, choices, and so forth. Women have a different and more acute sense of smell than men. Babies can detect their own mothers. Lots and lots of possibilities.

 

Excerpt from my upcoming cozy mystery, Message of Mayhem, with four senses layered in:
 
“Ivy!” Martha Robbins called to me from her stoop next door. I stopped at the end of the driveway, still facing the orange glow on the horizon. “Do you know what’s going on?”
Her kids huddle with her in a waffle-textured wool blanket. “Dale was called to the station, but he didn’t say where the fire was.”
“At True’s store,” I ground out. “I have to go.”
“Oh, Ivy. I’m so…” Her voice faded as I started to jog. Two blocks later I slowed to a very fast walk. I realized that loafers were a poor choice of footwear and I slowed to a very fast walk. The evening was still plenty warm and I was...glowing. Soon I slowed as I met up with throngs of people who gathered to watch and wait for news.
I headed toward the alley behind True’s place only to find the entrance taped off. A squad car, lights stabbing the night, sat empty, close by, as Officer Larken spoke to people a few feet away. I moved in their direction, dodging sightseers. I held my nose against the acrid odor of burnt tar paper and wiring. A spray of water arced high over the building, which stood sooty but intact, billowing black smoke from broken windows and vents. At least any flames appeared to be out.
“Officer! Officer Larken! Where’s True?”
“Miss Preston. Good eve—”
“It is not!” I snapped. “I need to know what’s happening. How bad is it? Where’s Mr. Thompson?”
“Here, Ivy. I’m here!”
“Oh, thank you, Lord, thank you!” I rushed to him. “I was so worried. I just ran. Are you all right?” I cupped his face in my hands. “How bad is it?”
“The fire burned mostly upstairs, my apartment. The firefighters did a good job. Lots of smoke damage, and of course, water damage. I don’t know about the store stock, but I wouldn’t be surprised if—” He had to stop to catch his breath. The front of his shirt wiggled.
“Isis. Oh, baby.” He opened the edges of his vest so I could see her. I had not even felt her when I had grabbed True so roughly. I reached my hand out to stroke between her ears. “She’s safe, oh, she’s safe.” Isis had no intention of letting True go. She even nipped at me, which I would have done too, under similar circumstances, but I did back off.
“She was already outside,” True said. “She wouldn’t let anyone grab her, but came to me when she saw me.”
“I wonder how she got out?”

I was exhausted, as if I had been fighting the fire myself. Smoke hung heavy, everywhere, blotting out some figures and creating other images that wafted, ethereal. My eyes stung and I blinked back tears. Due to the smoke. More than one person coughed and Officer Larken got on the microphone. “Go home, now. We don’t want anyone developing breathing problems.”
“Why don’t you stay with my wife and me?” Hanley, True’s business partner, offered. “Our son’s gone for the weekend, a camp outing, so you can use his room. In the morning, we’ll figure out what to do.”
Cal Stewart dashed up. Just in time to save the day.
“Hey! What’s going on?” Stewart asked.
“Thompson’s coming home with me tonight,” Hanley told him. “Why don’t you stop in for a while, too?”
“Uh, okay. Sure.” Stewart said.
“Can I drop you off at home, Ivy?” Hanley asked. True looked at me intently, as if willing me to do something. But what?
“No thanks. I walked here. I’ll just walk back. Clear my head. Good exercise.” True nodded ever so faintly, so I had guessed the right answer. Goody for me.
“Can you take Isis for me?” True asked. “She knows you and you have food and supplies.”
“Sure. Fine.” True came close, transferring the uncooperative feline from inside of his vest to me. She settled in, dug her claws in enough to make me wince and growled low, just to make sure we knew she was upset.
“Don’t believe everything you see,” True said, while he kissed me on the cheek, his touch lingering in my hair.

 
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Monday, October 22, 2012

Writing Life: Turn Your Dreams into Reality

Image of Notepad and Pencil
There’s a lot to be said for dreaming. That’s how many writers come up with stories, after all. Dreaming of writing success can help lay its foundation, but only if you can move from dreaming into doing.

Becoming an author is not unlike the process a caterpillar undergoes to turn into a butterfly. You start out a lowly worm, wrap yourself in a protective cacoon, and then burst free to fly. Here are some tips to help you spread your wings sooner.

D is for Discipline: The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair [Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966)]. The old-fashioned trait of self-discipline still wins the day. A writer willing to put in the time to improve increases the chances of success.

R is for Read: There are few ways to learn the writing craft as pleasurable as reading good books. Reading books from the masters teaches the craft of writing by example and helps you discover your own writing voice. Don’t make the mistake of cutting reading out of your schedule.

E is for Edit: Setting a manuscript aside and returning to it later with fresh eyes can be humbling, but push yourself to write your best. Muscles tear a little with exercise but heal stronger. In the same way, stretching as a writer can seem painful but causes you to grow.

A is for Attitude: Any battle takes place first in the mind. Hold each thought captive and measure it against truth. Common areas of struggle for most writers are overcoming a negative self-image, jealousy of others’ successes, apathy because it seems no one cares about your writing (not true: you do), and fear of success or failure. Prayer helps.   

M is for Monetize: Even if you don’t have a mercenary bone in your body, offering your writing for pay helps you set the bar higher for quality. Besides the obvious benefit of putting money in your pocket, monetizing your writing helps you take yourself seriously as a writer.

S is for Serve: Giving to others helps take your focus off yourself and can save you from becoming an insular, self-focused artiste. Besides, it’s rewarding and will enrich your life. Look for ways to benefit another writer, even if you’re a fledgling yourself. You can at least encourage someone dealing with a rejection.

You’ll notice that the bolded letters spell out a special word.

Never stop dreaming.

Which of my suggestions most resonates with you? Do you disagree with any? Have thoughts to add?
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Friday, October 19, 2012

Election Season Fun

Since we're closing in on Election Day here in the States, I thought it might be fun to share why George W. Bush is one of my favorite Presidents. Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with his policies, and everything to do with his unique way of using the English language. So, in keeping with the theme of Fabulously Fun Fridays (and yes, I know this is dreadfully late), I offer you some of my favorite "Bushism" from our 43rd President.

''Actually, this may sound a little West Texan to you, but I like it when I'm talking about myself, and when he's talking about myself, all of us are talking about me.''
—Presidential candidate George W. Bush, interview on "Hardball", MSNBC, May 31, 2000

 ''And so, General, I want to thank you for your service. And I appreciate the fact that you really snatched defeat out of the jaws of those who are trying to defeat us in Iraq.''
—President George W. Bush, meeting with Army Gen. Ray Odierno, Washington, D.C., March 3, 2008

 ''I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.''
—Presidential candidate George W. Bush, Saginaw, Mich., Sept. 29, 2000

 ''You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you need to concentrate on.''
—President George W. Bush, at the 2001 Gridiron dinner

 ''See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.''
—President George W. Bush, Greece, N.Y., May 24, 2005

 ''Then you wake up at the high school level and find out that the illiteracy level of our children are appalling.''
—President George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Jan. 23, 2004

 ''Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?''
—George W. Bush, Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 2000

 ''I'll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office.''
—President George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., May 12, 2008

 ''It's important for us to explain to our nation that life is important. It's not only life of babies, but it's life of children living in, you know, the dark dungeons of the Internet.''
—Presidential candidate George W. Bush, Arlington Heights, Ill., Oct. 24, 2000

 ''Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.''
—Presidential candidate George W. Bush, LaCrosse, Wis., Oct. 18, 2000

 ''One of the great things about books is sometimes there are some fantastic pictures.''
—Presidential candidate George W. Bush, U.S. News & World Report, Jan. 3, 2000

 ''I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace.''
—President George W. Bush, Washington, D.C. June 18, 2002

 ''I've heard he's been called Bush's poodle. He's bigger than that.''
—President George W. Bush, discussing former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as quoted by the Sun newspaper, June 27, 2007

 ''Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country.''
—President George W. Bush, Poplar Bluff, Mo., Sept. 6, 2004

 ''If you don't stand for anything, you don't stand for anything! If you don't stand for something, you don't stand for anything!''
—Presidential candidate George W. Bush, Bellevue Community College, Nov. 2, 2000

 ''There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.''
—President George W. Bush, Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 17, 2002.

 ''I want you to know. Karyn is with us. A West Texas girl, just like me.''
—President George W. Bush, Nashville, Tenn., May 27, 2004

 ''Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.''
—President George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004
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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Blog Tour Basics


Blog Tour Definition: A blog tour is just like an old-fashioned book tour - where an author traveled from city to city signing books at different book stores or events - except you are traveling from blog to blog and never have to leave home or take off your comfy pink bunny slippers.

Two Types of Blog Tours:

There are two basic ways to run a blog tour. You will want to pick the one that you think will best fit your schedule and lifestyle.

The first is to visit a different blog once a day for several days - usually two weeks to two months. (We’ll call this method the “Once a Day Method.”)

The second is to have a lot of blogs post about the book all on the same day. The theory behind this is you will get a lot of interest in your book all on one day, lower your Amazon sales rank and thus attract more buyers. (We’ll call this method the “Single Blast Method.”)

Two Ways to Set up a Blog Tour:

After you have chosen either the Once a Day Method or the Single Blast Method, you will need to choose how you want to execute creating that particular tour.

You can Hire a Company… There are companies that will, for a fee, set up a blog tour for you. They already have blogs that have agreed to blog about the books they offer, and all you have to do is hand over your money, give your information to the company, and they will handle getting that information into the hands of their bloggers. Generally, I do not recommend going this route, but if you are interested in looking at some, I’ve included links to a few options below with one option that is offered for free and highly recommended.
a. Tyora Moody - http://www.tywebbin.com/blog-tours/
b. Christian Fiction Blog Alliance - http://christianfictionblogalliance.blogspot.com/2008/04/exciting-changes-at-cfba.html
c. **Recommended** F.I.R.S.T. - http://firstwildcardtours.blogspot.com/ - Unlike the above two sites that charge a fee, I highly encourage you to join this group and submit your book for their blog tour. They run the whole thing for free as a ministry to Christian fiction authors. You can offer your book to the alliance members via electronic copy.
The other option you have is to set one up on your own… This is what I recommend, especially for those trying to run their promotion on the lowest budget possible. For my first book, I went this route and I had a lot of fun, but let me warn you that it is a lot of work to do this - that's why companies exist to do it for you. Below is an outline of the steps you will need to take to set up your own blog tour.

How to Set Up Your Own Tour:

1. First, about 6 weeks before you want your tour to start, begin to contact bloggers whose blogs you feel fit your target market. (A person who writes historical romance is going to want to visit different blogs than a person who writes Sci-fi.) Tell the bloggers that you are in the process of setting up a blog tour for your new release and ask if they would be willing to host you on a specific day and if so, how they would like to go about doing that.
a. There are 3 different types of posts you could do:
i. An author interview – generally the blogger will send you a list of questions they would like you to answer.
ii. A guest post. You might write about a topic related to your book. Or the blogger might ask you to address a certain topic.
iii. Book Review. You can offer ahead of time to send the blogger one of your books and they can simply do a review of your book on the day of the tour. 
2. Keep a calendar just for your blog tour and when you have emailed someone pencil their name and blog address into the date you have asked to visit their blog. As you hear back from people (I only had one person tell me it wouldn't work for me to visit their blog on the day I asked for) write them into their date in ink and make a notation of what they want you to do on their blog that day. (For example: Katie & Linda -http://www.authorculture.blogspot.com/ - write guest post.)

3. Start writing your posts and answering your interview questions and returning them to the respective bloggers. As you complete your portion of the post check off a little box to let yourself know you have returned everything the blogger asked for. (Often they will ask for an author image, and your book cover image to go along with the post. These are good to include even if they don’t ask for them. Also, don’t forget to include a link to either Amazon or your online sales venue of choice so the blogger can link to your book and buyers have easy access.)

4. About a week before you are to appear on each blog, contact the owners to make sure they have everything they need from you and take care of any last minute details that need to be handled. (This also serves as a gentle reminder to some who may have forgotten about little ol' you.)

5. Then comes the fun part - the tour itself. Make sure to put up 'pointers' to each stop of the tour on as many social networking sights as you can each day. (Shoutlife, Facebook, your own personal blog, Christian Writers (www.christianwriters.com) and Twitter.) Also visit each blog and interact with the commenters, not only on the day of the blog but for a couple days afterward. (I also gave away a free e-copy of my book at each stop. Each "contest" ran for a week and then we announced the winner. So for some weeks of my tour I needed to visit two blogs each day - one to congratulate the winner and one to interact with commenters.)

Preparations to Make Ahead of Time:

1. Write up a generic email that will be the template you use to email bloggers. You can then personalize this email toward each blogger you contact.

2. Create a file on your computer for your blog tour. Keep an image of your cover, your own author image, and your above generic template in the file. As you complete your interviews and articles save them here with the name of the blog or blogger they go to. Example: Interview for NameOfBlog.

3. Up to several months before your tour, you can start creating a list of blogs you would like to visit on your tour. Add this to your blog tour file above.
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Monday, October 15, 2012

The Sensual Writer: Hearing


The Sensual Writer
Listening vs. Hearing

 

“Are you listening to me?”


Can you “hear” the exasperation of the question? Or have you – no, how often have you – either heard or spoken these words?
Our next sense on the list is audition, or the ability to perceive sound. A vibration set off by a motion of some type passes through a natural medium such as air or water to flow across the incredibly complex design of the human ear. All creatures perceive these vibrations in unique ways and at different levels. And just like all of our senses, humans, as unique creatures, have the ability to pay attention to aspects of sensation, or the ability to tune them out. In the following 1668 painting, Allegory of Five Senses, by Gerard Lairesse, figures represent each of the five senses. Can you figure them out?  
The layers of auditory stimuli can be broken down into being able to hear and then interpreting that sound. The farther from the origin of the initial motion starting the sound wave, the type of medium, and the amount of multi-tasking the human brain is carrying out at the time—and of course, the human’s decision whether or not to act on the stimulus.
 
Thus, the concept of listening is the next layer of sensation; the response to what was heard. All of this leads up to wonderful opportunities for your characters’ actions and reactions; even for using the lack of hearing as a character within a character. The deaf community has a “loud” campaign that declares being hearing-less is not a deficit but another way of life and shouldn’t be “corrected” since there is nothing wrong. Now—what kind of character chooses “life” over “living”?


Choosing to ignore noises, whether or not considered “polite”; as overhearing, either deliberate or accidental, can lead to all kinds of misinterpretation and subsequent mis/adventure. Where do gossip and prejudice begin? A wisp of a phrase, a car backfiring, a gasp, a scrape across a matchbook, the click of a gun’s chamber, a shriek all have multiple interpretations demanding any number of reactions based on your character’s purpose or past emotional or physical association with the sound.
If I hear sharp cracks in succession from next door, what should I do? My reactions, in order: I make an assumption regarding the sound – gunfire. My fight or flight response kicks in, helping me decide if there’s danger to me. I decide to look in the direction of the sound. I see my neighbor holding a gun near her horses. I know that she is a history buff, and unless she’s had a psychotic break, would never harm her animals. I watch from a safe distance. I deduce that she is training her horses to adapt to the sound of gunfire. I later learn that this is so, as her horses are used in Civil War reenactments. But what if I had been a combat veteran? Or brand new to the neighborhood and yet to meet anyone? What if I had been a victim of a crime involving a shooting? How would I react if I were timid, angry, a weapons buff, or an animal lover?
 
Train yourself to listen, that is, to hear and interpret, the sounds around you in different scenarios. Park yourself in a safe place and turn off as many of your other senses as possible. Be still and let the sound waves wash over you. Pick out one or two noises to focus on and try not to jump to conclusions. Define the sound as loud or soft, short or long, high or low. Inventory your response to the noise: what’s your first reaction? How does it make you feel? What does the sound make you want to do? Do you know or only think you know the source of the vibration that became your sound?


Secondly, practice this exercise with another person and compare notes. Did you react the same or different and talk about why.
Seeing, touching, and now hearing, any activity creates both inner and outer responses based much upon experience. How you build that experience for your reader depends much upon your own ability to interpret your world. If you should “write what you know,” then learn all you can!
 
Excerpt from my upcoming cozy mystery, Message of Mayhem, with three senses layered in:
 

“Ivy!” Martha Robbins called to me from her stoop next door. I stopped at the end of the driveway, still facing the orange glow on the horizon. “Do you know what’s going on?”
Her kids huddle with her in a waffle-textured wool blanket. “Dale was called to the station, but he didn’t say where the fire was.”
“At True’s store,” I ground out. “I have to go.”
“Oh, Ivy. I’m so…” Her voice faded as I started to jog. Two blocks later I slowed to a very fast walk. I realized that loafers were a poor choice of footwear and I slowed to a very fast walk. The evening was still plenty warm and I was...glowing. Soon I slowed as I met up with throngs of people who gathered to watch and wait for news.

I headed toward the alley behind True’s place only to find the entrance taped off. A squad car, lights stabbing the night, sat empty, close by, as Officer Larken spoke to people a few feet away. I moved in their direction, dodging sightseers. A spray of water arced high over the building, which stood sooty but intact, billowing black smoke from broken windows and vents. At least any flames appeared to be out.
“Officer! Officer Larken! Where’s True?”
“Miss Preston. Good eve—”
“It is not!” I snapped. “I need to know what’s happening. How bad is it? Where’s Mr. Thompson?”
“Here, Ivy. I’m here!”
“Oh, thank you, Lord, thank you!” I rushed to him. “I was so worried. I just ran. Are you all right?” I cupped his face in my hands. “How bad is it?”
“The fire burned mostly upstairs, my apartment. The firefighters did a good job. Lots of smoke damage, and of course, water damage. I don’t know about the store stock, but I wouldn’t be surprised if—” He had to stop to catch his breath. The front of his shirt wiggled.
“Isis. Oh, baby.” He opened the edges of his vest so I could see her. I had not even felt her when I had grabbed True so roughly. I reached my hand out to stroke between her ears. “She’s safe, oh, she’s safe.” Isis had no intention of letting True go. She even nipped at me, which I would have done too, under similar circumstances, but I did back off.
“She was already outside,” True said. “She wouldn’t let anyone grab her, but came to me when she saw me.”
“I wonder how she got out?”

I was exhausted, as if I had been fighting the fire myself. Smoke hung heavy, everywhere, blotting out some figures and creating other images that wafted, ethereal.
Officer Larken got on the microphone. “Go home, now. We don’t want anyone developing breathing problems.”
“Why don’t you stay with my wife and me?” Hanley offered. “Our son’s gone for the weekend, a camp outing, so you can use his room. In the morning, we’ll figure out what to do.”
Cal Stewart dashed up. Just in time to save the day, I thought sourly. The third musketeer in this strange little web. Stop it, Ivy! You’re just tired.
“Hey! What’s going on?” Stewart asked.
Apparently the quality of the conversation, like the smoky air, was not about to improve any time soon.
 “Thompson’s coming home with me tonight,” Hanley told him. “Why don’t you stop in for a while, too?”
“Uh, okay. Sure.” Stewart said.
“Can I drop you off at home, Ivy?” Hanley asked. True looked at me intently, as if willing me to do something. But what?
“No thanks. I walked here. I’ll just walk back. Clear my head. Good exercise.” True nodded ever so faintly, so I had guessed the right answer. Goody for me.
“Can you take Isis for me?” True asked. “She knows you and you have food and supplies.”
“Sure. Fine.” True came close, transferring the uncooperative feline from inside of his vest to me. She settled in, dug her claws in enough to make me wince and growled low, just to make sure we knew she was upset.
“Don’t believe everything you see,” True whispered, while he kissed me on the cheek, his touch lingering in my hair.
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Friday, October 12, 2012

Fabulously Fun Friday: Still Thinking About Self-Publishing?



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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Writer's Digest University course by K.M. Weiland

Just in case you didn't know, AC's one-time contributor K.M. (Katie) Weiland's book Outlining Your Novel: Map your way to success is now a course for the Writer's Digest University!

Katie's book takes you through the details of plotting your work, but allows you to determine how much or little of her suggestions to tailor to your own style. The book is great, but the wonder of the course is having the opportunity to actually interact and learn first-hand.

Seating is limited, so act soon! If you're serious about your writing career, if you want to begin looking at yourself as a professional writer who knows the craft, you'll look into this ~~~


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Sign up for the Outlining Your Novel Workshop
Dear Wordplayers,
The Outlining Your Novel workshop is now up and running on the Writer's Digest University site. Only 15 "seats" open for this first session (running October 18-December 13), so grab 'em while they're hot!
About the Workshop
Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland
Writers often look upon outlines with fear and trembling. But when properly understood and correctly used, the outline is one of the most powerful weapons in a writer’s arsenal. With the help of the book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland, you will learn how to choose the right type of outline for you, brainstorm plot ideas, and discover your characters.

Required Book: Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland
Workshop Length: 8 weeks
Tuition: $376.00 ($338.40 for VIP)
Course Structure:
This workshop will consist of eight one-week sessions. Each session will include an online lecture, along with various reading assignments, research projects, and a writing assignment that will be submitted to the instructor for private review. Student work will also be posted for group review and feedback. Throughout the workshop you will be able to participate in asynchronous lecture discussion and you’re encouraged to take advantage of ongoing informal discussions and posted self-directed writing exercises.
In this online writing course you will learn:
  • How to structure your novel’s scenes
  • How to create, format, and use an outline to write a novel
  • The benefits of outlining
  • The common misconceptions of outlining
Who should take this course:
  • First-time novelists who have never created a novel outline before
  • Fiction writers who want to know what type of outline works best for their individual style
  • Beginner writers who are interested in using an outline to develop their plotlines, characters, or overall story
Happy writing!
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Monday, October 8, 2012

Why You Shouldn't Begin With Dialogue

Author Benjamin Percy states a controversial opinion and then backs it up with common sense. I was going to exclaim, "But wait, I know of stories which opened with dialogue!" He quickly addresses that...
When a reader first picks up a story, they are like a coma patient—fluttering open their eyes in an unfamiliar world, wondering, where am I, when am I, who am I? The writer has an obligation to quickly and efficiently orient.
Which is why writers should avoid opening with dialogue. I know, I know—you can think of ten thousand awesome stories that do exactly that. I don't like any them. With one exception—"Where's Papa going with that axe?"—from the beginning of Charlotte's Web. It works because E.B. White fills the white space: immediately establishing three characters, one of them  in the middle of an arresting gesture.
And that is your job, to fill in the white space. Imagine a blank canvas. Now imagine a sun boinging up until it settles on an afternoon angle. Then a hundred or so trees spike themselves into a distant forest. A field of corn unfurls from the furrows—and a combine grumbles through it.
He finishes his anecdote at the link - I encourage you to click over and see how it ends. In the meantime, Benjamin (I can't bring myself to call him Percy) pretty much makes my usual caveat for me - it's best not to break the rules unless you can just be brilliant, in which case, hey, go for it.
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Friday, October 5, 2012

Fabulously Fun Friday ~ The Hokey Pokey Shakespearean Style

Saw this on Facebook awhile back and thought it was great. Happy Friday, everyone!



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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Writing: Telling Subplots From Plot Bunnies


As a child, did you blow bubbles? If so, you already understand something about subplots. 

What does blowing bubbles have to do with subplots, you ask? 

Simply this: When you blew too hard on your bubble wand, you burst any bubbles as they formed. Blowing too lightly, while it showed you there were bubbles to be made, didn't produce them. Only by exerting the right amount of force could you blow bubbles. 

Subplots are a lot like bubbles. If you try too hard to produce them, they evaporate. However, they won't necessarily form without your help.

What's a Subplot, Anyway?

It's easy to become confused when thinking about subplots, so let's start with a definition. A subplot is secondary plot that compliments your main plot. Adding subplots to your novel will give it layers of substance and effectively underline your theme. Layering with subplots adds texture to a story.

Subplots should never lead the reader away from your theme and should, in fact, support your primary plot. A subplot happens because of (rather than instead of) the main story. Anything else is a distraction otherwise known as a rabbit trail. All sorts of unrelated events tangle together in real life. Good fiction doesn't suffer from such snarls but is carefully constructed to represent, rather than emulate, real life. Understanding this difference is crucial.

Good subplots form and grow as you write. Most show up early but can also appear partway through a story. Watch for them as you introduce new characters or new situations. They can spring from a romantic interest, a character's struggles, an obstacle to be overcome, or a past experience which is revealed over the course of the book, to name a few origins.
Example 
Most people would agree that Gone With The Wind details the epic romance of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. Scarlett's relationship with Melanie Wilkes, her father's fate, and her relationship with her sister, Sue Ellen, are all subplots. Each forms its own "story within a story," and yet each contributes to the greater story by shaping our opinions about Scarlett. None of these subplots is forced. Each arises naturally from the main plot and helps develop the theme. 

Adding Subplots to Your Novel 

One of the best ways to add subplots to the main storyline is to introduce new scenes from the point-of-view of the characters involved in them. This is a great way to introduce secondary characters, by the way. 

Remember, unless you are writing from an omniscient viewpoint, never change viewpoints within a scene. Provide either a scene or chapter break whenever you change point-of-view. Using other characters' viewpoints to unfold subplots means you can introduce information to which your main character is not privy. Just remember, as you weave your storylines, to connect them at the end of the book. Don't leave any threads hanging.

©Janalyn Voigt

Do you have a hard time coming up with subplots or do they occur to you naturally?
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