Monday, October 30, 2017

5 Tips for Creating Villains

This past month I have been on the road attending a writing conference, getting new material for new books, and enjoying seeing new parts of the US and Canada. In coming weeks I will be posting information about what I learned during my travels. Let me begin with a writing session I attended at the Emerald Cities Writers' Conference. This is one of my favorite conferences because there are writers of all genres and everyone is so friendly and ready to talk at any time about their writing.

One of the sessions I attended was with best selling author Karen Rose who discussed writing romantic suspense. Her comments on villains really hit home with me, because I am currently working on a non-fiction book on creating bad guys. It was great to hear her say some of what I am putting into my book for would-be authors to help them craft good villains. For instance:

1. Make your villains more than single-dimensional.  Bring them to life as much as you bring in
your hero and heroine. Don't let them be card board cut outs that could be just any ordinary character.  Even if you don't use all the material, write up a character profile, just as you would with the hero and heroine. You should be able to understand them and their motives or you can't impart the information to your readers.

2. Avoid having a vague villain.  This was one valuable lesson I took away from listening to Karen Rose. When I teach character classes I always say that the character's goal or motivation needs to be personal. It should be that way for the villain too. But it can be personal in more ways than just trying to harm the hero or heroine. It could be that the villain's aim was to prove something to him or herself so that it might seem random to the person trying to solve the crime, but it certainly won't be to the villain.

3. Make your villain smart. Unless you're dealing with writing a comedy, the villain needs to be smart enough to be a worthy adversary. Who wants to defeat someone who was just lucky for once? It might be fun to get the better of a comedic villain, but make that bad guy worthy of your story and your hero or heroine's time and energy. Make the villain as conniving or evil as you can get away with in the story. 

4. Keep the Villain Involved.  The bad guy can't just show up once, do one little thing and then simply go back to a normal life until exposed at the end of the book. Bring him or her back in little ways that keep the hero and heroine working toward that goal of uncovering who the bad guy is. They need a reason to keep him or her from acting again.

5. Bring them back.  One question I was asked about plotting in a recent class was how I could approve a story plot where the bad guys got away. This beginning writer had been told that the bad guys always had to be punished. But I say, not so quick.  There are times it makes more sense to let that villain come back. As long as the reader gets an ending to the current book, whether it is showing who the real killer is and letting the hero off the hook or promising a new battle between the two, it is possible to let the bad guy live or escape to fight another day. Did we as readers or viewers lament the escape of Hannibal Lecter or Darth Vader?  As long as we knew we would see them again, we were content with the endings of the stories involving them. We wanted to know this story was done and all was well -- if only for now.  So my advice is, bring them back, especially if they are special.

Actually, you should be creating your villains to be so special that readers want to see them again. As you write your villains, look for ways to make them as unique and popular as those villains we all get to know (and love or hate) but who we want to see matching wits with our heroes and heroines. We want worthy opponents for our winners so make those losers as strong and worthy as possible. It only makes for stronger characters over all.

For the next month I will begin my special NaNoWriMo blogs -- posting every week with those little tips that keep us working through NaNoWriMo.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

5 Tips for Developing Research Techniques

This past week researching has been on my mind for a number of reasons. First of all I am working on a project dealing with a Native American leader that requires research, plus I was teaching a class on how writers can conduct research for their books. To add to the mix, our weekly publisher's chat was also on research and the best way to do it. That made me want to do my own research. Who better to ask than a group of published authors so I began asking around. 

What was the first thing I learned about research?  Nearly everyone starts with the internet because it is so simple and such an obvious place. The danger? False information or incomplete information. The historical editor who led our publisher's chat was quick to tell us we needed to double check anything we learned through internet research. I've blogged on conducting research in the past and warned about the dangers of accepting everything you might find on the internet. So how can you become a better researcher?

 So where else can we look?

1. Look for experts.  Now this is a place where internet research can help. By going through articles or researching websites you can find experts that you can either try to contact or look for their books on your subject. Look for experts who might be nearby who  you might be able to interview personally. 

2. Search out programs or lectures that might feature what you want to write about.  For things like mythology or history, that might mean a trip to a local museum. But don't simply visit it. Keep an eye out for experts at the location who might be able to either answer your questions or point you in the right direction. As one writer told me, "you have to really want to get to know a subject if you're writing about it," so always be on the look out for programs on subjects you might want to tackle in the future.
3.  Visit the location.  I can't stress this one enough.  My last blog I did on research was about my visit to Bent's Old Fort to see how the trappers and traders lived. There is no better way to learn about someone than to walk in their shoes and being inside the cramped quarters and seeing the actual items that were used back then made it easier for me to write about them. Last week I visited the burial place of Chipeta, a Ute leader who worked tirelessly for peace for her people even as their lands were taken away. Sitting in the quiet evening breeze, listening to the silence and enjoying the peace of the afternoon could really speak volumes that simply reading about her wouldn't have given me.

4. Libraries and museums. These are often forgotten treasures that can also take you back in history and give a better sense of life in the past. But don't forget science museums and planetariums where you can learn about the stars and space travel. And for certain, ask questions of the guides, or get information on experts you might be able to call.

5. Keep a list of everyone and everything you learn, and don't hesitate to get cards from people so you can call them later if you're unable to talk to them while you are at the museum.  Build a file and hold onto the information. You never know when you might want to go back to that person for more details for your story.

Mainly, you need to keep digging. Every subject has its experts, but don't simply call or try to interview someone without any sort of plan. Come up with a list of preliminary questions you can ask so you don't have to try to think of them on the spur of the moment. Plan in advance and then conduct your research in a professional manner. You are a professional. You're a writer!

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

5 Tips to Getting Back to Writing

Okay, the summer is over if you count Labor Day as the Official End of The Vacation Season. It is now time to go back to the keyboard or pick up the writing tools and start working again. I am certain a huge sigh follows reading that line. I sighed heavily after writing it. Since Labor Day was always the holiday that signaled the start of the school season back when I was still in school, that is how I still view it. That means all those excuses for not writing on my manuscript must end. Time to edit, to write, to WORK!
 But how can we do that?  How can we get started again? I actually used to enjoy the beginning of the school year and the new school supplies and new clothes. I also liked the idea that I would be taking classes I hadn’t taken before and that I would be learning new things.

Let’s look at a few ideas for putting our now much older brain cells back into the writing harness.

1. Go back to your last manuscript. Open up that manuscript you were working on –whether that was a month ago or two months ago.  Start reading it, start editing it, but get busy with it. But don’t start from where you left off. Start from the very beginning. Re-read your work and see if it holds up from the beginning.

          2. Re-introduce yourself to your characters. See if you are introducing them properly. You probably know them a little better after spending that time with them earlier. Look over whether you really got some of who they are into those opening paragraphs.

         3. Check over your setting. Are you pulling readers into the setting at the beginning and making them feel the location, the time period or the time of year? Look for places you can edit or make notes on items you need to look up. 

      4. Focus on the Inciting Incident. Are you getting the start of the story in quickly enough or are you spending too many pages setting everything up? Those days of long involved openings no longer work. Readers want to get into the meat of the story as quickly as possible.

       5. Make necessary edits but don't bog down. While you want to fix the big problems, don’t get so engrossed with making it perfect that you forget to move on. The story needs to continue to move and you need to continue to write it and get the rest of the story out of your head.  

Mainly you want to start working with fresh ideas, a fresh outlook and fresh determination to finish. Set up some new writing rules for the rest of the year or set them up as though you were starting the next year of school. Try some new writing trick or lesson that you heard about over the summer. Maybe it’s time to try using a timer and attempting writing sprints. Or try using a new writing program. It’s a new year, why not try something new?

The long days of winter are ahead and there will be plenty of days where it makes sense not to go out, but to stay inside and WRITE!

Monday, August 21, 2017

5 Tips to Vacation Writing

Earlier this summer I gave tips on summer writing and I've done some tips on writing when you're out of town or distracted, but now is the height of summer vacation. How can you keep your writing groove on when faced with trips, tours or just sitting on the beach or up in the mountains and relaxing. Who wants to put your nose to the grindstone when you can be playing or visiting with friends or relatives? Well, yes, you can put those trips to good use, very good use.

1. Make your trip count. Take that trip to some place you've always wanted to write about or some place you've read about that you've always wanted to visit. Visiting a new place always can foster new story ideas or new places to set your book.  Take that trip to Hawaii or Europe and use the location, but summer vacation can be a great time to get in some writing while you are sitting at the beach and soaking in the sun. Take a trip to the beach at sunset and enjoy the last rays of the day, or sit in an outdoor cafe and observe the people and listen to the special sounds of that particular place. Because let's face it, whenever your are on the road, you should....

2. Observe your particular location. When I say observe, think about how you would describe it as
you are writing a story. Or better yet, write a travel story about it. Whenever I go to a new place I immediately go through all the information at the hotel to see any local tourist destinations, but I also look for those different little places. Ask around in the hotel coffee shop or the cab or Uber driver about any interesting but not tourist-y place that you might visit. I also like to learn about local sports stars, historical figures or heroes,  to get a feel for the people from there and to get more ideas for characters.

3. Try those little dining spots that are not necessarily in the tourist guide books. Look for the local coffee shops in the neighborhoods or the small diners or ethnic food places. Try them out. It not only will enhance the vacation, but can also be good food for thought next time you are writing a book.

4.  Talk to the local people. Pick up on any local accents, the way people dress,  even the items on the local menus. When I was travelling across the country with my family we made it a rule that we were going to eat whatever the local delicacies were. From Texas to Maine we enjoyed Mexican food and steak in Dallas, then Cajun in Louisiana, all the way up to crab in Baltimore and lobster in Maine.  We even had to stop by in Hershey, Pa and buy chocolate.

5. Keep a travel notebook and make good notes. And keep taking them, and updating and updating. When we went across country my mother started taking notes the minute we left Colorado and crossed over into Kansas. She had great notes on the farms of Kansas and even listed all the foods we had those first days. By the time we reached the East coast she had lots of blank pages and was trying to remember instead of instantly writing as she witnessed things.

So enjoy your summer vacation, but keep notes and pictures, and if you aren't a photographer, buy postcards. I began collecting postcards the minute I left home for college. I have cards from all 45 states I've visited -- from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic to the beaches of Hawaii and the glaciers of Alaska.

Enjoy your summer trip, and if you find yourself sitting and waiting at an airport or on a long plane ride, try some writing to fill the time. Or pick up a book by a new author or try reading in a new genre.

There's always lots you can do before getting back to work on your next book.

Monday, August 7, 2017

5 Tips to Plotting

Is there anything more intimidating to a fiction writer than a blank piece of paper or a blank screen? What do you do with it?

This past weekend I was lucky enough to present my ideas for my plotting methods to my Sisters in Crime - Colorado group.  This is a wonderful organization and our Colorado chapter has a great group of writers.  The sessions are always good for generating ideas and for tossing out new ideas when someone is having trouble with their current work in progress.

As I planned my portion of my plotting session I got to thinking about not only my particular haphazard method of plotting but how much I have learned about the overall plotting process through the years.  When I first started writing I began by simply sitting down with a blank notebook, a pencil and a vague idea in my mind. I had one character and I had no idea what she was going to do. My first story ever was about a teenager who got kidnapped with a rock star. I think I had Herman from Herman's Hermits in mind when I wrote it.  But I started out by writing a scene. Strangely enough I still write that way. When I get bogged down is when I start planning so many scenes in advance and then my mind doesn't seem to want to write them. That made me start thinking about the entire plotting process.  And what I came up with was DO IT YOUR WAY. Only you can tell what process works for you. Here are some ideas for figuring that out.

1. Try plotting a story if you must. List the scenes that you know you need and then start writing them. As one of our presenters mentioned, even if you are listing them as you go along or a scene or two in advance, then you are plotting through the outline method. There's no problem with that and by writing them down as you go you are also able to see where certain events go in case you need to refer back to something.

2. Plot using the "What if" method.  That is one of the things that always gets me going on a story even if I have no idea about the direction it is headed. By writing down the "What if" I can find motivation coming alive for my characters. Well, if X happens, how will my main character react? How about those around him or her? What will happen as a result of that.

3. Try plotting a few scenes ahead of time.  Usually this can work for me because then I know what scenes are coming up. I can plant clues or misdirect the hero or heroine in the current chapter or scene and know what I need to do as I work toward the overall outcome.

4. Try plotting by chapters. Usually there may be two to three scenes in a chapter so in that case I might use a story board to make sure I am keeping my pacing going in each chapter. No one wants scene after scene of back story. The reader gets bored. Also no one wants scene after scene of chases or life and death situations. The reader gets breathless.  Plotting by chapter lets you see where you need to let up on the action or make something happen.

5. Try simply writing out the story itself from beginning to finish -- no dialogue, no description. That in itself can become your overall outline. This can sometimes serve as a backbone to your book too. You can always take some of the parts and then embellish them should you get bogged down at any point in the book.

Most of all, though, experiment and figure out what works best for you in plotting. There is nothing worse that getting bogged down using a certain method and getting so wrapped up in the method that you forget to write the story.  I regularly teach classes on a method called the Plotting Circle, and that was the session I presented on Saturday. It works well for anyone who needs to outline or if you are like me and plot organically or a scene at a time.  Email me at if you would like to learn more about how to use the Plotting Circle.

Monday, July 24, 2017

5 Tips to Writing Dialogue

Recently I was talking to someone who wanted to try her hand at writing fiction, but she feared having to write dialogue. She said she could write passages of character description and location easily and she could even come up with ideas for scenes. But she feared having to make the characters speak.  As we continued to talk I began to show her how she could approach the problem.

“Think about what we’re doing,” I told her. “We’re sitting here.We’re drinking a glass of wine, and we’re talking.”

“But how would I do dialogue?” she asked. “How can I put words in other character’ mouths?”

I am repeating this conversation because that was my first lesson to her as I began to consider how to show her how to write dialogue.

1     1. Learn the proper punctuation and how dialogue is written in a passage. That is a good part of what was bothering her. She wasn’t certain of the formatting, and as I showed how it was done, that took away some of her misgivings.

2    2. Listen to other people’s conversations and how others speak. The more you do that the more you will notice how unique people are in their speech patterns. I once heard a best selling author say that writers are the world’s best eavesdroppers and I believe it. Listening to different people talk can give the writer ideas for making your characters sound different.
3. Don’t be afraid to experiment. When you are doing that eavesdropping, try writing a scene around it. Sitting in a hospital waiting room once I overheard the woman next to me on the phone complaining about her daughter’s drug problem. I found myself writing the other half of the conversation to go with what the woman was saying. It was simply an exercise, but I saw it as a way to sharpen my writing of dialogue. What would I say to answer the woman? And how was she speaking? Was she shouting at times? Was she pleading?
       4. Write only the dialogue portion and then fill in the descriptive part of your scene and any dialogue tags later. By focusing only on what the characters are saying, often it is easier to write the scene. You can edit later or right after you right the dialogue scene.
      5.   Put the feeling in the dialogue itself  and don’t constantly use dialogue tags. Putting in action can often replace a tag so that you don’t end up with a bunch of “he said,” or trying to put in other tags to let the reader know who is speaking.

I’ve always enjoyed writing dialogue because I like to hear my characters speak and often I write the dialogue first and then come back and fill in the rest of the scene, but that is just my preference. The point is to know that your story will always need dialogue, but don’t let it frighten you. Look around and listen and you will find that writing conversation isn’t such a frightening prospect after all.   

Monday, July 10, 2017

5 Tips for Summer Writing

As we move through July more people are taking vacations or spending time doing fun outdoors things. Who has time to write?  We all do and we should make good use of these warm summer months to get things done with our writing that we might not normally do.

Here are 5 tips for using the summer to get your writing in gear even while you are on vacation.

1. Visit a museum.  If you are visiting relatives out of town why not take a trip down to the local museum and study some history. You might come up with a good story idea or two or four or six. Think about all the real life characters you can learn about in a museum, not to mention coming up with interesting facts about a region that you might be able to use in a time travel or even in a futuristic fantasy.

2. Take a hike and let your mind wander.  Some of my best story ideas have come up while I am on a long walk, enjoying the scenery
. Thinking up a plot while trudging along a trail in the high country can not only make the walk go faster, but if you find yourself surrounded with a beautiful mountain view or looking for shells on a lonely beach you can also soak in the feel of the location and use that for a story in the future. Appreciate the setting and think about how you might write about it. You might even look for a way to put it into a scene in your book when you get back to your hotel room.

3. Read!  What is better to do that sitting on a beach chair soaking up the sun and reading the latest books you have been promising yourself you want to tackle. They can not only rejuvenate your brain but sometimes they can also remind you that YOU can write as well and get you going again. You might also consider reading through your latest work and look for new plot directions or pick up something you haven't work on in a while and read through it as though you were reading someone else's book. That might break a logjam in a story for you.

4. Relax! Not only is sitting by the beach or taking that long walk energizing but just letting your
mind wander with nothing to do can clear out some of the dead brain cells and get new ideas planted in your head. Even if you don't feel like writing you can still plot or come up with new ideas for characters. Sometimes being away from your writing desk can totally free up your brain to go in new directions.

5. Do some fun writing. Put away that fiction and try writing non-fiction for a change. Do an interview with someone at a place you're visiting and write up a non-fiction blog piece on the person. Whether it's a fellow traveler or the guy who's selling ice cream along the beach walkway. Think about how you might write a news feature on the person. What kind of questions would you ask? How would you tell the story?

Summer can be a great time to relax and get our writing thoughts in order. But then, eventually, we do need to get back to the keyboard or notebook and sit down and start tackling those writing subjects again. But why let all that great writing time go to waste? Enjoy the summer, but come back refreshed and ready to write!

5 Tips for Creating Villains

This past month I have been on the road attending a writing conference, getting new material for new books, and enjoying seeing new parts of...