Please welcome back ANN WARNER – I was intrigued at the way her “dreams” books grew into a series. Have you ever had a series evolve unexpectedly?
In general, novels with romantic story lines end when the two characters who have been dancing around each other for 200+ pages finally realize, like the reader has, that they are perfect for each other. Once they admit that to themselves and each other, we as readers and authors close the book with a sigh, leaving those characters frozen in that perfect moment.
But it’s possible that what comes next could be equally interesting, although I’ll admit, it didn’t occur to me to apply this thought to my books until one of my readers pushed me to think about it.
Up to that day, despite all the evidence that series are popular with readers and provide writers with built-in promotional opportunities, I never thought I would write one. I considered myself an author of single titles. Period.
Until I found myself writing my first series.
In Dreams for Stones, I had written a heart-breaking story of a man consumed by grief after witnessing his wife’s death. Alan is gradually pushed and pulled back to life and the possibility of loving again by his best friend Charles and the woman who will become his second wife. Once I got Alan to commit to a future with Kathy, I thought I was done. Not so, according to one reader. She wanted to go beyond the happily ever after, to see if Alan would continue to progress, and what happened when he had inevitable setbacks.
The suggestion wormed its way into my psyche, which luckily was not distracted at the time by another idea, and I decided to give it a try. I not only found it remarkably satisfying to carry on with these characters, but I also enjoyed delving more deeply into the character of Alan’s best friend, Charles. Charles, a man of mixed emotions and an uncertain future, added depth to Alan and Kathy’s story and helped provide a solid foundation on which a sequel could be written.
Dreams for Stones was published in 2007and the sequel, Persistence of Dreams, a year later, so imagine my surprise when a recent reader’s comment led me to revisit those two books and discover the possibility for a third book. This became Unexpected Dreams which was published early this year. This is neither a normal nor recommended approach for a series!
During the ten-year gap between Persistence of Dreams and Unexpected Dreams, I found myself writing a very different kind of book. A cozy mystery, in fact. And this time it didn’t take a nudge from a reader for me to recognize that I’d created an entourage of characters who could easily support more than one book. My Babbling Brook Naked Poker series now stands at three books.
Given these successes, it has crossed my mind to reconsider some of my other “standalone” novels in order to see if there are possibilities for continuing stories there. I suspect there may be.
At any rate, the reader nudge that led to my first series was one of the best happenstances to come along in my writing life.
So here is your nudge. Is there a series lurking in a book you thought was finished? If you’ve unexpectedly found yourself writing a series, how did that come about?
Raised in an Air Force family, Ann grew up to become a clinical chemist, toxicologist, and university professor. Until her life took an unexpected turn in 2001, when she began writing fiction. Her debut novel, Dreams for Stones, was a finalist for the Indie Next Generation Book Award in 2007.
Ann’s novels about strong characters facing interesting challenges take advantage of the many unusual settings she’s traveled to or lived in including New Zealand, Australia, Peru, San Francisco, Alaska, Colorado, Boston, and Puerto Rico. As well, her experiences as a toxicologist have added fillips of intrigue to many of her stories.
In Ann’s novels, the consequence of choosing to love or not to love is an underlying theme, as characters face crises and complications that force them to dig deep within themselves to discover their own resilience.
A man holding fast to grief and a woman who lets go of love too easily. It will take all the magic of old diaries and a children’s story to heal these two. Available as a free download in multiple formats. (https://www.annwarner.net/books/dreams-for-stones/)
Murder made to look like an accident, family secrets, interfering mothers, lovers in conflict, horses. All combine in a satisfying mix in this contemporary mystery.
The Babbling Brook Naked Poker Club Series
The Babbling Brook Naked Poker Club – Book One
A morose parrot with a reputation for biting perches in a small cage in the lobby of Brookside Retirement Community. For Josephine, a reluctant resident, he sums up the place which friend and handwriting expert, Lill, has dubbed Babbling Brook (in honor of the missing waterway and the more exasperating residents). However, Brookside turns out to be more interesting than Josephine expected, as it becomes the setting for art theft, other dodgy dealings, and…naked poker. Investigating the unusual events, Josephine and Lill befriend Devi Subramanian, a young woman Josephine tries to prevent from making the same mistakes she has made.
A painting worth millions, valuables gone missing, a game that is more than a game. And that’s only the beginning.
Book One is available as a free download in multiple formats. (https://www.annwarner.net/books/the-babbling-brook-naked-poker-club-book-one/)
About This Book
Josephine, Devi, and Mac’s story continues. Devi and Mac are falling in love, but a complication comes along in the form of Mac’s pregnant ex-wife. As for Josephine, with the excitement of unmasking the Brookside thief and Devi’s being shot now over, she’s finding Brookside Retirement Community (aka Babbling Brook) as dull as she initially expected it to be. Until, that is, she gets involved with a man who suspects her of being a criminal mastermind. Finding love at this late date is something Josephine never expected, and it’s her Edward Hopper painting that plays matchmaker.
Appropriate for all readers.
About This Book
Josephine Bartlett is back, joined by her partner in mystery-solving, Lill Fitzel, flamboyant ex-beauty queen, Myrtle Grabinowitz, former attorney/current novelist, Philippa Scott Williamson, Brookside’s thief, Edna Prisant, good friends Devi and Mac McElroy, and last, but not least, love-interest Norman Neumann.
When new resident, Lottie Watson, loses at Naked Poker, she tells a bizarre story about how years ago her husband disappeared in the LA airport. Josephine and Lill, intrigued enough to investigate, discover there may be more ominous goings-on than a simple disappearance…or are there? Meanwhile, Josephine ignores the mysteries of her own heart.
Welcome to Wayback Wednesday! Today we’re traveling back to September 9, 2011, when this post first appeared. Franzeca Drouin, the author of this post, will be joining us periodically, after she returns from volunteering at an animal shelter. RU founding member Tracey Devlyn introduced the original post:
“Please help me welcome researcher and editor Franzeca Drouin to the campus. Franzeca’s research and editorial skills are much in demand by writers of all publication levels. I should know. She saved me from a few historical snafus while reviewing my debut novel last spring. Sit back and enjoy Franzeca’s insights into traveling during the Regency period (think Jane Austen!).
The classroom is yours, Franzeca!”
One thing I’ve noticed in working with authors of historical romance is that we tend not to have an instinctive grasp of pre-mechanized transportation. The food, clothing, language that we use today are recent descendants of Regency times, and mostly manageable (with the exception of our casual reference to Freudian terms and modern psychology, which can be circumvented by careful language choices.) But our sense of travel and distance is so unlike the reality of 200 years ago that it’s often hard to get everything right.
You have someone on horseback who needs to speedily dismount. But you HAVE to do something with the horse—tie it to something, hand the reins to someone. You can’t trust that it will stay in place like a parked car. A coachman cannot descend and knock on a doorway for you for the same reason: someone has to stay with the horses. You cannot assure your characters of good roads, sound horses, indestructible carriages, and an absence of highwaymen, though any deviation from the ideal can provide excellent plot twists. We forget that people walked to their destinations, often many miles away. Remember Lizzie Bennet’s determination to walk to Netherfield to see an ailing Jane? We tend to dismiss the process of the journey as something negligible between two places, but it was a Huge Deal in early 19th Century Britain. Huge.
For reasons of space limitation, I’m continuing this discussion on my website.
Here’s a link to a recent question I had about travel times:
Here’s the bulk of my information about travel in Regency times, including where travelers could stay overnight. It’s rather long, sorry, and has a list of useful websites that also have information about 19th Century travel.
The thing I want to talk about most is the oldest and most expensive book in my collection of reference books. The sticker, still attached to the inside of the front cover, indicates it’s the 15th edition, includes eight maps, and costs 12 shillings. In the back, it advertises itself available in a “pocket size…for the convenience of travelers on horseback” and costs a mere four shillings. I bought mine a few years ago for £100 from a little bookstore in England, and I’m currently celebrating the 200th birthday of my copy of Paterson’s Roads. That’s what the gilt letters hand-tooled on the spine show, though the complete title is A New and Accurate Description of the Direct and Principal Cross Roads to England and Wales and Part of the Roads of Scotland, by Daniel Paterson, Lieutenant-Colonel and Assistant Quarter-Master-General to his Majesty’s Forces. I saw a photo of a first edition, from 1771, and already Paterson’s Roads was on the spine, the beginning of the AAA travel book of pre-railway Britain. University libraries frequently have a copy of the book, and I’ve seen that it has finally been reprinted, and is available on Amazon for considerably less. Interestingly, the reprint is also the 15th edition, which Sir Herbert George Fordham refers to as “the final edition of the original work.” Paterson himself was no longer associated with the writing or publication of the book after 1785, and lawsuits ensued as to whom actually held the copyright. The final, eighteenth, edition was dated 1826 and 1828, with undated copies printed in 1829 and 1832. So, Paterson’s Roads faded into the sunset just as the age of the railway dawned.
Very little is known about Paterson, other than the dates on his tombstone. He was born 1738, and became a commissioned officer in 1765; I presume he purchased his commission. He spent his entire career attached to the Headquarters Staff at the Horse Guards, and never did active service or regimental duties. He retired as an Assistant Quartermaster-General of the Forces at the end of 1812. He was then named Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, a post he held until his death in 1825, at the age of 85. The post was apparently a sinecure, as he never went to Canada, and the duties were probably neglected or performed by poorly-paid deputies in Canada.
The book itself is a wonder, the cover still square and sturdy. The hand-made (?first mechanical paper presses in England were installed in 1803,) paper, all deckle-edged, the elegant type, in different sizes to indicate different information, roman, bold and italic, all hand-set. I like to think that Lizzie Bennet and the Gardiners had a copy they used to locate the sights and gentlemen’s residences they visited during their tour of the Lakes.
The main part of the book is a listing of roads, mostly from locations (posting inns?) in London, to various cities all over England, Wales and some of Scotland. And each list carefully names each hamlet passed en route, the direction of each crossroad, the distance between each named settlement, the distance from the starting point of the journey (in London), which towns have a posting house where fresh horses can be obtained (if there’s only one posting inn, the name is given) and the market day for that town. Running parallel to that are various description of sights, natural and architectural, to be seen in the area, gentlemen’s homes to be visited, and historical factoids.
In the back of the book is an index to all the country seats, by name of house or estate, or gentleman proprietor, occupying 50 pages. There’s a table giving the elevation of various hills and mountains encountered on the route. Next, there a list of all the towns where the post coaches stop, including the time of their arrival and return on their circular routes. (No need to give the departure time, as that will be mere minutes after the arrival.)
At the end is a very interesting schedule of the packet boats that take the British mail overseas, though the asterisk attached to the schedule for Holland and France noted “except in time of war.” I wrote to the British post office about this, and they confirmed that, indeed, mail delivery continued sporadically to France during the Napoleonic Wars. Packet boats also went to Ireland, the Channel Islands, North America, (via Halifax, except during the winter, when it went straight to New York,) Prussia, and the West Indies. I couldn’t find out if they took passengers, though I would think they would have room, and like the post coaches, it would be a good revenue source.
So, yes, give your Regency characters a copy of Paterson’s, and send them on their way. They’ll have a splendid adventure.
RU Crew, how many of you have a favorite rare book you’d like to share? Have you ever considered writing a Regency historical? For our readers, did you know so much had to go into writing a Regency-set (any historical-set) novel? Franzeca is an expert at all-things historical, so if you have a burning question, please feel free to ask.
Franzeca Drouin has worked as an editor and/or researcher on more than forty books. She is very much looking forward to having her wicked way with the next forty. In her spare time, she cooks, gardens in tiny spaces, sings, loves cats, and struggles with sudokus. You can find more information about Franzeca at http://franzeca.wordpress.com.
I move so often it’s practically a hobby. I’ve been in Chicago almost six years and now we’re bracing for a cross-country trek to Eugene, Oregon. So, once again, I’m emptying bookcases in an attempt to organize (and pack) my gazillion books. The hard part is trying to find some books to give away.
Books are heavy and when you’re a bookaholic like I am, it means books multiply like rabbits around here. In our last move, we were downsizing from a big house to a two-bedroom condo. This move will put us back into a house, but one we’ll be sharing with both of my kids and my grandkids. There will be room for books, just not ALL of them. Hence: sort, stack and, whenever possible, give some away.
The fun part of this program is that unpacking bookshelves is like digging up buried treasure. I have layers of books on each shelf, and I don’t often work my way back to the first layer. The newer books tend to be at the front, so the treasures at the back go waaaaay back to my early days of reading romance.
I’ve been hooked on romantic suspense since my high school days but I didn’t become a hard core, loud-and-proud romance addict until I was living in London in the mid-1970s. There was a small street market in Grays Inn Road, just down the street from the venerable building that (back in the day) housed the London Times and the Sunday Times. I had a long commute on train and bus, so every day at lunchtime, I would pop out and restock my paperbacks. As I recall, you could get 10 books for one pound Sterling, and a full bag of paperbacks for not much more. The bookstalls were packed full of Mills and Boon books, the British equivalent of Harlequin, and I soon had a two-book-a-day habit.
When I moved back to the U.S. in December 1981, one of the first things I did was subscribe to Harlequin, Silhouette, Candlelight Ecstasy romance, adding new formats as they were created. So…Harlequin Presents, Silhouette Special Edition, and then Blaze, Desire and so on arrived in my mailbox often enough to feed my habit.
Rereading those books, which now almost qualify as antiques, is like going back in time. I almost hear the wheels of the train rolling into Charing Cross station as I zip through the worn Mills and Boon copies. I paired up tiny baby socks while trying to read the latest Special Edition or Presents at the same time.
I read my way through all fifty states (and then some) with Janet Dailey. A literary scandal led me from Janet Dailey to Nora Roberts, and I read all of her books, too. I enjoyed discovering series authors like Patricia McLinn and Jessica Bird (who is now better known as J.R. Ward). Then, as now, I collected books by my favorite authors and those authors’ names fill me with good memories.
In recent years, I’ve been thrilled to find many familiar authors from my early days of romance reading on Facebook. Those authors helped me adjust to being a stay-at-home mom, and they saved my sanity when my son suffered with colic all those years ago. In my mind, they are literary legends. I still have more bookshelves to go through, but I thought I’d share some of the treasures I’ve unearthed. What drew you to these “category” books, and what keeps you coming back for more?
What authors first hooked you on reading romance?
Becke joined the RU team in January 2011. She moderated the Garden Book Club and the Mystery Forum at BN.com until the forums were discontinued. Prior to that, she was a writer and instructor at B&N’s Online University and for two years she wrote a garden blog for B&N. During Becke’s twenty-plus years as a freelance garden writer, she wrote six garden books and one book about ‘N Sync, co-authored with her daughter. Becke also used to blog at Michelle Buonfiglio’s Romance Buy the Book blog. Writing as Becke Martin, she has three short stories in the HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS anthology published by the Ohio Valley Romance Writers Chapter.
In the distant past, Becke sold advertising for the Chicago Sun-Times, the London Sunday Times and the Daily Herald. She has two adult children, two awesome granddaughters, one fabulous daughter-in-law and three cats. She has been married almost 47 years and lives in Chicago’s Hyde Park.
Welcome back Damon Suede with another fabulous post and an announcement about his NEW BOOK! SQUEE!
So as fate would have it, next Monday (12 March) I have a new book called Verbalize on characterization and story craft coming out inspired in part by posts I’ve done here at Romance University and conversations I’ve had in the comments. One of the techniques the book tackles is way events can amplify characterization and simplify structure.
Events are instinctive. Every story’s power emerges in moments of collision. Characters collide as they confront obstacles and opponents in pursuit of happiness, and these intersections change everything. Each collision between your characters releases energy, much like nuclear fusion or fission, as they reveal their internal struggle in the face of external challenges. How much energy your story accesses depends entirely on your ability to tap their essential nature via actions and reactions.
Your audience reads to experience a satisfying emotional ride. Your entire job as an author is to provide that experience as seamlessly as possible. Everything happening in your story doesn’t mean squat unless the reader feels something entertaining and satisfying.
For a story move anyone, characters have to make your readers care.
Each collision releases more mojo into the story’s world, disrupting the circumstances, unleashing disasters, and forcing characters to make high-stakes choices. Whether these clashes are internal or external, public or private, intentional or impulsive, these moments in the story become events…pivotal, irrevocable shifts in the flow of the character’s options.
An event is any significant disruption of the status quo…
Events create tangible effects on anyone party to them because they inherently alter the story’s progress and the character’s choices from that point forward: arrivals and departures, blessings and curses, decisions and disasters, revelations and reversals, lies and confessions, accidents and jackpots, assignations and departures,.
As Henry James said, “What is character but the determination of incident, what is incident but the illustration of character?”
Events force the characters and the readers to stop everything and pay attention. They are watershed moments because they mark points of no return for one or more characters. Smart writers tend to show events happening for the first or the last time because the irrevocability alters the character and shifts the plot.
Instinctively, most people who enjoy books, movies, games, or comics gravitate toward events. They are the fabric of pop culture and most showbiz spirals around them inexorably: ramping toward each event and then navigating the fallout before lurching toward the next dramatic crest. Think about the ways your favorite s entertainment is structured: promises, fights, reunions, confessions, disasters, makeovers, betrayals, seductions, confrontations, redemptions. By definition events scramble the options available to a character, altering their options and then forcing them to choose.
The schlockiest mass media revels in shameless event-mongering. Small wonder: events require no explanation and attract instant rubbernecking from most humans. The average viewer can tune in and find themselves unable to touch that dial…because their monkey mind wants to know what happens next…after the wedding, funeral, promotion, birth, bonus, arrest, etc. They’re audience bait coasted in superglue.
Events create instant, fascinating context.
Wise writers learn to think eventfully, because those dramatic collisions motivate characters, galvanize audiences, and anchor any story. You want your characters to do things that matter, that have a meaningful impact, then you need to start thinking about the kinds of impact possible for those characters before you put a word on the page.
I always tell my students to look for the WHAM. Events erupt from a stories steady rhythm anytime two opposing viewpoints slam together: goals, ethics, beliefs, philosophies, opinions. Everyone in the story’s world sits there safe and sedated until—WHAM—the ex-husband moves in next door or your car starts to levitate to the in-laws deep-fry your kid for lunch. Your protagonist just bumbles along until—WHAM—she sprouts fangs or inherits a castle or catches bubonic plague. The delicious rub between what characters expected to happen, and how things turned out sucks the audience into the narrative. That contrast draws our attention and the ironic tension rewards us for noticing the disparity.
An event is contrast turned into context. Like a caffeinated truth serum, events force characters to confront their illusions about the world and the reality they’ve been ignoring. First they show you what’s going on and then they kick your butt until you do something about it.
Even better, because characters can cause events or simply deal with events caused by other characters, they must make terrible, beautiful choices that have fascinating consequences. Their conflict becomes character growth in front of our eyes and in our hearts…because we live the choice alongside them. And because this happens in a book rather than our real lives, we get to experience impossible decisions at a safe distance. All of the emotion with none of the direct danger to our safety. Yay, genre fiction!
Thinking eventfully will save you from writer’s block and ramp up the emotional punch of any project. One easy way to tackle events is to think of them in the context of a movie trailer… look for the highlights:
What three or four moments would fans of your story want to see on screen in 30-second preview?
What characters would receive the most screen time and how can you give them something fun and physical to do that conveys character?
How can you signal your vibe, voice, and subgenre clearly in these preview moments without explanation or exposition?
What details or elements help these events cohere so that they obviously come from a single story?
How can you make these big events stand out from every other event of their types in your genre and subgenre?
If you had to cut one of these preview moments from the trailer, which one would you ditch and why? Weigh what makes this the weakest event in the list to see if you can improve it.
Whether pantser or plotter, noob or veteran, you can gather rough events almost like a mise en place… assembling the components to create a dish. You may not use all of them but you can compile the tasty options. Look for the fun possibilities, the surprising depths, the startling reveals that might crack your characters’ (and audience’s) emotions wide open. Consider the events native to your subgenre… rom-com loves meet cutes and makeovers, historical thrives on social sparring and scandal, erotic romance revels in fresh trespasses and transformative firsts. When you’re weighing an event, look for opportunities to give readers what they want in a way they couldn’t have expected.
As director Sydney Pollack once said, trashy pulp fiction teaches us a valuable lesson in the power of bold choices. Events set you free to explore the limits of your story. Whenever you stall are stray, just ask yourself what the worst possible event would be and then MAKE IT HAPPEN. How do characters react to that impossible collision or make that impossible choice?
And for any of you pantsers out there blanching at the idea of preplanning events…fret not! You can wander and improv to your heart’s content, but wandering towards and away from pivotal, critical events will help you steer that story even when you aren’t sure where it’s headed.
Remember: what the audience wants from you is an unforgettable emotional ride. The events are the big structural posts that let you build a thrilling roller coaster for all those hearts. Or is that feel overwhelming, keep it simple: list the critical moments guaranteed to happen in your book and build from them. Dwight Swain once said that all you need to write a book is three or four big events and a satisfying resolution. Even before you know the particulars of character and context, the events can help you lay the tracks.
Whenever you feel the story sag or characters stagnating look to the event(s) before and behind them so you know where they’re headed and how they got there. Events will help you track your character’s path and perspective as the story changes them. Use those events to crack them open like a piñata so you can shower the readers with candy.
Think eventfully and every story will become an unforgettable event of its own.
Comment below for another chance to win Damon’s new book!
Bio: Damon grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen almost three decades and just released his first craft book: Verbalize, a practical guide to characterization and story craft. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.
Welcome back to Tessa Shapcotthere with another fabulous post – what kind of editor do you need? A great one of course!
There is a myth that a good writer doesn’t need an editor. I’d challenge that and then some. A good writer not only needs an editor but deserves a great one.
So, how do you know your editor is great for you and your books?
Of course, there are different types of editor, each of whom will be involved in the various stages of your novel as it travels towards publication. The developmental editor (AKA the commissioning or acquiring editor) will work with you in depth on the structure and content of your book, helping you to develop your characters, storylining and plotting and to enhance your storytelling abilities. Line editors take over from the developmental editor, looking at the manuscript as a whole, to fix issues such as continuity, language, sense and style, ensuring readability. The copy editor becomes involved at that next stage, as the person who dots the ‘i’s and crosses the ‘t’s by checking facts, grammar, punctuation and spelling. Finally, the proof-reader takes care of the typeset or formatted version, watching out for glitches and catching anything that was missed (and despite all the eyes involved, things can be).
Whatever stage you are at in the publication process, it’s essential that you feel confident and comfortable with the editor to whom you’ve entrusted your ‘baby’. Unfortunately, there are bad editors out there. Like all creative professions, the role attracts its share of poseurs and wannabees! But there are also many brilliant editors too. So here is a list of qualities to look for when either you are assigned a new editor by your publisher or you hire a freelancer that will help you to know when you’ve found a gem.
A great editor is passionate about books. Try to get her chatting about fiction, what she likes to read, the authors she admires. If she bubbles over with enthusiasm, knowledge and joy, those are very good signs.
She has a business head. She possesses strong market knowledge and sound commercial judgement; she knows what sells and has her radar switched on for the trends she sees happening now and coming soon.
She communicates promptly and professionally, always keeping you, the writer, in the loop.
She loves and understands authors. She knows what makes you tick; what to do when the words aren’t flowing, when and how to run with you when they are, when to listen and when to chivvy. She always makes time for you and is your best writing buddy.
She has respect for the author’s voice. She climbs into your characters with you, living and breathing them too. She never micro-edits, but instead quietly keeps the train on the tracks by using her skills to coax you, and develop and enhance your narrative, leaving your unique style intact.
She is always eagle-eyed and consistent. She has the stamina and steadfastness to keep a keen eye on the ball and maintain the rhythm the whole way through the manuscript, holding all the strands together until the ends can be tied.
She can deliver criticism with objectivity, diplomacy and optimism. If revisions are needed, the author should be left feeling fired up and inspired for the task ahead, not daunted and overwhelmed.
She never outshines her author. She supports you to be the best you can be and is ready to praise you publicly without claiming the limelight for herself.
Are there any other qualities that you feel are important? Have you had good or bad editor experiences? Please do leave your thoughts on the thread below―we’d love to hear them.
Join us on Friday for Damon Suede!
Bio: Tessa Shapcott is a freelance fiction editor. She also writes romance as Joanne Walsh.
Welcome back to Lesley Vos who is sharing an important and sobering message about depression and writing.
Once upon a time, depression settled at my place. Well, I should have thought that it always lived there; but this time it came out of hiding, and manifested itself at its best.
Depression was beautiful. For the first little while. Its romantic, sad, and mysterious image seemed magnetic. A vulnerable soul, I wrote romance narratives about broken hearts, breakups, inner turmoils, and in vino veritas. Depression appeared the only condition I needed for writing my magnum opus.
But time passed by… It lured me into the abyss of despair. Doctors, stimulators, anti-depressants that didn’t help… Both physical and mental health went down. It looked like I was falling to the rabbit hole, so deep and dark that it left no hope for escape. And to add insult to injury, it hit me: masterpieces of many great writers were born under the same condition.
Does it mean we need a depression to write stories? Or, are we prone to depression more than other people for the sole reason that we are writers? Or both?
Though some researchers insist that writers have depression more often than non-writers, they don’t have any firm statistics on that. However, there are several reasons – logical enough – on why knights of the pen might be prone to this state:
Some writers need it for work: they feel unable to describe sufferings of a character captivating enough without experiencing similar trials themselves.
Some choose long periods of isolation for writing: a lack of light, exercise, and social interaction may lead to depression, too.
Some writers are too sensitive to critics from editors, rejections from publishers, and comments from peers. Worrying about what others would say about our works, we feel stressed.
Also, we writers read a lot, learn a lot, and think a lot. There’s a theory saying that better-educated people are unhappier in life: spiritual reflections, future considerations, and thoughts on purpose may trigger blue mood.
There’s also a hypothesis about the creatives’ brain working differently if compared to average people: while the precuneus (the area of the brain linked to self-consciousness and memory retrieval) of an average person is active at off-work time only, it works continually for a creative. Unable to focus on one thing, a writer makes associations between the external world and his internal experience, which leads to manic-depressive conditions.
Depression has no gender, but women writers are generally thought to be more susceptible to it. Emily Dickinson, Sara Teasdale, Marina Tsvetayeva, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath – they all have fallen victims to depression, followed by death. Ernest Hemingway – a male victim of the Sylvia Plath effect, by the way – once referred to depression as “the artist’s reward.” But can we agree with him, bearing in mind the consequences of this mental illness? A reward for what? Wouldn’t “a fee for success” be a more precise metaphor here?
“I don’t want to die but live dying.”
These are words Marina Tsvetayeva, one of the Russian most depressive poets, used to describe her condition. The theme of death, eternal suffering, and hopeless despair permeates her works. And though she tried to find a cure for her depression in love, which affected her romance lyrics, Marina could not cope with the disease and, eventually, hung herself in the last summer day of 1941.
“I Shall Not Care” by Sara Teasdale was wrongly considered her suicide note because of its depressing undertone. But still, the poet suffered from her personal “great depression,” related to toxic relationships with ex-husband, married lover – who had committed suicide himself, by the way, – and female objects of her affection. In 1933 Sara overdosed on sleeping pills.
Anne Sexton locked herself in the car, started the engine, and ended with carbon poisoning. The same happened to Sylvia Plath: she put her head in the oven and suffocated there. Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the river near her home…
Certainly, far from all consequences of writer depression are so terrible. Carrie Fisher, Anne Rice, and J.K. Rowling struggled with this monster, too, and won.
Anne’s daughter died of leukemia, and the writer sank into a severe depression: together with her husband, they drank heavily but were able to overcome the problem after her son’s birth. Some call Joanne the most famous depressed writer of today, as she suffered from clinical depression before and during writing the Harry Potter series: they said, dementors pictured her condition best – bleeding the authoress dry. Carrie Fisher struggled with bipolar disorder, characterized by depression episodes, but didn’t give up and conveyed the powerful message through her works: “there is no shame in a mental health diagnosis.”
Do you see any signs of depression in your writer life?
The first and the foremost advice most give to depressed people is “get a grip.” The irony of irony is, the depressed hate this recommendation but admit that it works. In his article for Joanna Penn’s blog, Mark O’Neill shares thoughts on the topic and delivers tips on how to overcome this health problem. I hope both Mark and Joanna wouldn’t mind me paraphrasing the tips here:
Organize your daily routine to do everything at the same point of time: wake up, eat, have a walk, write, go to bed, etc. Even such common activities are challenging for depressed people to overcome, so motivate yourself a bit: Mark recommends to get a dog, but it’s up to you to decide if you’re ready for a new member of your family in the house.
Don’t concentrate on word count. Many writers, including Stephen King who suffered from depression himself, shares productivity hack: maintain a daily word count. It works, but not for those in depression: you would feel even worse if didn’t get through your set word limit.
Join writers communities to meet like-minded people and feel their support.
Read more positive books, watch humor TV shows, and consider funny movies. They don’t just influence your mood but also might inspire to write your next masterpiece.
Do you agree with the hypothesis that romance writers are prone to burnouts, fatigue, stresses, and depression more than others? What are your recipes of dealing with these monsters, if so?
Or, it’s not writers who become depressed but depressed people who become writers?
Join us on Wednesday for Tessa Shapcott!
Bio:Lesley Vos is a seasoned web writer, guest author of 200+ articles on copywriting and marketing, contributor to the blog on plagiarism-free content, ghostwriter, and bookworm. In love with coffee, inspired by Jane Austen, and dreaming of visiting Australia one day.
I’ve known P. C. Zick for several years now. We “met” each other online over the mention of “Pittsburgh” (her then-home and my former home). We hit it off and became fast friends. Then I learned she’s a darn good author, too. It’s my pleasure to introduce her here today. Let’s give her a warm welcome.
Five years ago, I never imagined writing romances, and I vowed never to write a series. My vision of myself as a writer held a narrow view of writing serious important literature. Then with little warning, my vision morphed and shifted in life’s funhouse of wavy mirrors.
Boredom drove me to enroll in an online group, Romance in a Month, just for fun. Nothing more. But the more I studied the romance genre, the more intrigued I became with creating a fictional world where my characters could live and love. My first exercises in the class brought me into a fictional town with dysfunction as its slogan. Within the community, I designed the Victory Tavern, a central location for those characters to gather. And my first romance, Behind the Altar, came to fruition within a month of starting the process.
In the ensuing four years, this first romance grew into the other thing I never envisioned. I began to write a series. And from there, I wrote a second series in a different town but with equally troubled souls. Last year, I began writing another series in yet another town with a family who appears to have it all, but of course, no one ever does. And in the process, I learned the life of a writer is a fluid thing, which can change at any time. I found that romance doesn’t need to be simply fluff, hearts, and roses. And I also showed myself that the process of revision is the art of once again looking at the words on the page and making them better.
As I delved into writing Behind the Altar, my sixth novel and my first romance, I relaxed more than I ever had in my writing. In some ways, writing romance taught me more about writing fiction than the other genres. It’s a process that must be followed, and with its rather streamlined form, the elements of plot are on display. Do it wrong, and the readers are displeased. Dialogue, plot happenings, the HEA—all of these must be done with finesse.
When I finished Behind the Altar, I missed the town and the characters, so the best friends of the hero and heroine became the focus of my second romance. In Behind the Bar, the characters all return—along with a few more added to create more complications. When I finished, I once again found myself not wanting to leave Victory, the fictional town I had created. Thus, Behind the Curtain came to life. I now had three novella-length romances with stand-alone plots, and characters intertwined with one another.
Readers who read the first three books kept asking me to do one thing. They wanted the sexy minor character in all three books to have her own story. She interfered in relationships, yet it was clear she was misunderstood. And behind it all, she was a nice person. I kept putting it off. I thought I’d run out of things to write about everyone. And I didn’t know if she was a character who could sustain a novella, let alone a novel.
When sales slowed on the first three books, I consulted a marketing expert who advised that I lengthen the first three books into full-length novels and write a fourth book in the series. I’d never gone back to one of my novels before except for minor editing. I’d never considered doing a major rewrite with the objective of lengthening the story. But then again, I’d never thought I’d write a romance or a series of romances.
Suddenly, the story of the misunderstood sexy barkeep of the first three books came to me. I did know her better than I had thought. Simultaneously, I went back to the others, and re-visioned them into deeper and lengthier full-length novels. Those months of creating and re-creating represent some of the best writing hours of my twenty-year career. I immersed myself in the work and lived and breathed Victory and its mishmash of misfits who all fit together into one perfect family of choice.
Changing gears and plunging into romance recharged my writing batteries. And here I am four years later with seventeen novels, and I’m still learning
As I worked on the four books in the Behind the Love series, I learned another lesson. Romances can contain a social consciousness. I found I could weave real-life issues and solutions into the plot of the romantic novel while still giving readers what they want from the genre.
Romances don’t have to be bodice-ripping pieces of silliness, but that’s the reputation in the minds of those who don’t read many romances or have only been exposed to that type of formula romance. It’s one of the reasons I stayed away from writing a straight-up romance for the first sixteen years of my writing career. Without realizing it, my romances grew into more than boy-meets-girl. I had created characters with flaws born of dysfunction. Issues of domestic violence, child abuse, alcoholism, broken families, homelessness, mental illness, and the PTSD of wounded veterans play major roles in the conflict, growth, and resolution of the characters and the chaos whirling around them.
The dysfunction of all their lives allow them to connect. And when they do, they create a different sort of family made up of others who’d grown up with negligent parents, alcoholic fathers, drug-addicted mothers, wife beaters, child abusers—all bad examples for forming relationships. But the novels aren’t dark because all my plots contain elements of hope—hope for a better life, hope for unconditional love, hope for forming lasting relationships.
It may be a cliché, but the adage of “never say never” resounds as tangible proof in my Behind the Love series. I learned to loosen up and take myself less seriously, but in the process, I still managed to touch on issues I find important, and I created characters who carry the universal traits and wounds and badges of a life lived well.
The first romance turned into four. And before I knew it, I created a new world for my Smoky Mountain Romance series with another band of characters drawn together by love, wounds, and goodness. I’m currently working on yet another series, Rivals in Love, but this time the characters come from one big happy family, which allows me to explore the intricacies of six siblings and the dynamics of power and self-worth in the struggle to find love.
A multitude of lessons fell into my lap when I decided to challenge myself to try something new, which brings me to my next project. A paranormal time-travel romance awaits in the wings. And maybe I’ll finally finish the Pittsburgh sports series I began several years ago when I wrote Third Base.
But nothing says I can’t go back to the literary fiction where I began my journey twenty years ago because I know better than to limit myself by defining who I am as an author. It’s never too late to take another look at what I’ve written to show me that the biggest limitation to my writing career had been sitting at my very own desk—me.
I would love to hear about your experiences. Have you ever broken away from your writing vows and strayed into something new? Or have you ever gone back and revamped a novel or series? What were the results?
Bestselling author P.C. Zick describes herself as a storyteller no matter what she writes. And she writes in a variety of genres, including romance, contemporary fiction, and nonfiction. She’s won various awards for her essays, columns, editorials, articles, and fiction.
The three novels in her Florida Fiction Series contain stories of Florida and its people and environment, which she credits as giving her a rich base for her storytelling. “Florida’s quirky and abundant wildlife—both human and animal—supply my fiction with tales almost too weird to be believable.”
Her contemporary romances in the Behind the Love series are also set in Florida. The novels in her most recent series, Smoky Mountain Romances, are set in in Murphy, North Carolina. She is currently working on a new romance series, Rivals in Love. Join the Crandall family of Chicago as the siblings find love despite their focus on successful careers. All her books are stand-alone reads, even if they appear in a series.
Her novels contain elements of romance with strong female characters, handsome heroes, and descriptive settings. She believes in living lightly upon this earth with love, laughter, and passion, and through her fiction, she imparts this philosophy in an entertaining manner with an obvious love for her characters, plot, and themes.
Leah Bryant lives a quiet life helping others. When her future mother-in-law, Geraldine, threatens her causes, she’s left confused by the hypocrisy and befuddled by a stranger who roars into town on a Harley.
Dean Davis never wanted to return to his hometown. But when his father dies, he knows he must return and faced his mother, Geraldine, and his ugly past. When Leah discovers the stranger is the brother of her fiancé that she’d been told was dead, she’s drawn to him and furious about the deception. Both are bowled over by an intense attraction to one another. The magnetic pull draws them into a passionate embrace within minutes of meeting.
Leah’s controlled life and Dean’s emotional barriers both shatter and force them to examine their lives. Leah must choose between her safe engagement to Dean’s estranged brother, Jacob, and a dangerously passionate affair with Dean. And Dean must confront the demon from his childhood, his mother. Dean’s fear of loving and Leah’s need for security pull them together, rather than apart.
But none of it will matter if they can’t stop Geraldine, an unhinged woman on a destructive course to abolish everyone who opposes her thirst for power. When Dean and Leah, along with Jacob, threaten her, she goes on a rampage to destroy them all.
Behind the Altar is the first novel in the Behind the Love contemporary romance series that features sizzling attractions, dramatic confrontations, and intertwined and complicated lives. Set in the fictional small town of Victory, Florida, friends fight and love and form families of their own choosing.
When a friend introduced me to Kindle Worlds, I had a lot of questions. I didn’t know anything about the process. It occurred to me that I might not be the only one, so I asked the super-generous Susan Stoker (the world I write in) if she’d answer some general questions for us. And she agreed! The Q&A that follows should clear up any confusion you might have. I know it helped me…
Staci: What is a Kindle World? Is it the same as fan fiction?
Susan: Kindle World books are basically fan fiction. In my world, Special Forces: Operation Alpha, authors write stories, usually connected to their own series, but include some of MY characters. Some authors use my characters a lot in their story, and others use them only peripherally.
Staci: Are there any other restrictions? Susan: It depends on the world. A few authors who have written in my world have made my characters the central focal point. Some make up backgrounds for my characters, or they intertwine my characters with theirs. Other times my characters might be a cousin of their heroine or a friend from when their hero was in the military.
Any character an author has used in one of their books in the past remain their property. So it’s a good chance for an author to write a novella about a side character from one of their series that they think their readers might enjoy.
Authors do need to be careful about using settings they’ve used in the past, however. Amazon retains the rights to settings in the stories. (Bars, clubs and things like that.) Cities are okay because they are generic enough, so they can be used.
Staci: What are the writer’s obligations? Susan: Authors who want to write in a Kindle World generally are responsible for editing their story and getting a professional cover made for it. Some authors design all the covers for the authors writing in their world, and others have specific things they want in the cover design, but that’s up to the individual world owners.
On every cover there is a one-inch by one-inch block in the lower left corner that is covered by the Kindle World logo, so authors/designers need to keep that in mind when designing.
Staci: Why would an author want to write for someone else’s world rather than his or her own? Susan: One of the main reasons authors would want to write in someone’s kindle world is for exposure. Let’s say Stephen King has a KW, and you write horror, you’d want to write a story in his world to try to capture some of his readers…that’s why people do it. They want to try to grab some readers who already read in the genre, get them to try THEIR stories, and hopefully become lifelong fans.
I’ve also written in a world because it’s owned by a friend of mine. Or maybe an author has written in your world and you want to return the favor. Or maybe you love an author’s stories and want to use them in a story. Maybe you want a chance to write “outside the box” of what you usually write. Some people do it just to have fun. The reasons authors write kindle world stories are wide and varied.
I have seen a lot of new relationships form between authors who have written in my world as well. We have a group online where people can ask questions and generally get advice from other authors.
One of the BEST things about kindle worlds is that ANYONE can write a story. Even an aspiring author who hasn’t published anything before. They can get their “toes wet” by writing fan fiction.
I would say money is probably not the main reason authors should do this, however. The small bonuses Amazon had given to authors are going away, and I’m not sure anyone has “gotten rich” off of a KW book. With that said, in today’s book world, even gaining one new reader is a good thing. That one reader might tell their friends how good the book they read in the KW was and then go and get all the other authors’ books…which in my eyes, is the ultimate goal.
Staci: Can anyone write for a Kindle World?
Susan: Anyone can write in any Kindle World. Some authors think they have to get permission from the world owner to write in their world, but that is not the case. Anyone can go to the Kindle World page, choose a world, and submit a story.
Sometimes, however, by going through the world owner, the author can get more marketing from that author. Some authors don’t do any kind of advertising for their world and others do a lot.
Many world owners have organized launches, which means several books are released at the same time, which can help with marketing. More books mean more visibility.
The other thing I get asked about a lot is if I worry about what other authors are writing in my world and what they might do to my characters. I’d be lying if I said no, but generally, I don’t worry TOO much about that. Ultimately, if an author decides to break up some of my characters or kill them off, it won’t benefit them. My readers will get irritated and they’ll most likely give that book low ratings and won’t be eager to try out that author again.
Staci: Can anyone with a series create a Kindle World? Would they want to? What are the responsibilities of the world’s owner? Susan: As of now, authors need to be invited by Amazon to have an official World. Some authors who have been offered a world have declined because they don’t want others writing in their “world” and possibly “messing” with their characters.
Honestly, there aren’t any official responsibilities of a world owner. They can do absolutely nothing, or they can do a lot. Marketing, pimping, making covers for authors, helping them through the upload process, reading their stories before they’re published, managing a public group for the world, managing a secret author group for the world…the possibilities are endless. But again, nothing is mandatory for a world owner to do. Generally, however, the more the world owner puts into it, the more they’ll get out of it.
Staci: What are some of the drawbacks of writing in a Kindle World?
Susan: Possible drawbacks are losing “rights” to your story that you’ve written from Kindle Worlds. Amazon is the publisher and they own the rights to the story, including subrights (audio, paperback, etc). There’s a chance they will never exercise those rights, but they still own them and the author is not allowed to sell either on their own.
Other drawbacks are that you have no control over the price. (If the story is under 10K, it’ll be priced at 99¢; 11K-49K it’ll be $1.99; over 50K it’ll be $3.99.) Amazon can put the book on sale whenever they want. Also, the stories are only available on Amazon and not any other platform. The last drawback is that right now they are only available in the US not any of the international Amazon sites. That is very frustrating for our international readers who want to get their hands on the stories. Right now they have to jump through hoops to change the “country” in their account and/or get someone to gift them the stories. Along with that, authors can only WRITE in a world if they have a US bank account or if they go through a third party service that will accept the money and then deposit in a bank account in their home country.
Staci: If Amazon always owns the story, can they pull it down after a certain amount of time? (If they do, can you then republish it on your own?)
Susan: When publishing a story in Kindle Worlds, Amazon acts as the publisher and, as such, owns the rights to the book. I haven’t heard of Amazon “pulling down” a KW book, but I would assume if they do that, then the author would have the right to ask for their rights back.
Staci: Can you make a softcover (and/or hardcover) copy to sell? If so, does the KW logo stay on the book? Does Amazon have rights to it?
Susan: No paperback copies are ever allowed to be sold, because Amazon owns the rights to them. It would be like if Harper Collins (or any other publisher) owned your book and you decided to upload it to Createspace and sell it. You are cutting them out of the profit loop, which they frown upon. In this case, if an author made their own paperbacks (or audio) and sold them, he/she would be cutting not only Amazon (the publisher) out of the profit loop illegally, but also the world owner (since the writer is using his/her characters, they justifiably have a right to some of those profits).
Staci: Anything else you wish to add?
Susan: Because Amazon owns the rights to all books written in the Kindle World, I always caution authors to have fun with writing their story, but not to put all their blood, sweat, and tears into it. Have fun, write a nice little novella, but don’t expect to make millions of dollars from it, and don’t write something that you’ll be devastated to never get the rights back to.
The publishing world changes drastically from year to year, but if you think you’ll be heartbroken if you can’t get the rights to your story back, or if you can’t ever put it in audio, or if you can’t get paperbacks… maybe reconsider writing in a Kindle World. This should be a fun, no stress, laid back project you take on. You want to gain more readers and have fun while you do it. That’s my take on it, at least. I know there might be others who disagree, but that’s the attitude I’ve taken on the four books I’ve written in other authors’ worlds, and what I try to tell the authors who want to write in my world.
Thanks to Susan for taking the time to clarify Kindle Worlds. She asked me to mention that she is NOT a laywer, so you can use her answers as a starting point, but please do your own due diligence with respect to the rules if you choose to write for a Kindle World.
Susan’s latest release went live yesterday! Here’s a little more about it:
Falling in love could expose a woman in hiding in the fourth Ace Security novel from New York Times bestselling author Susan Stoker.
Former mercenary Ryder Sinclair’s stunning discovery that he has three half-brothers in Castle Rock, Colorado, is giving them all the chance to color in the spaces of their tragic pasts. For Ryder, establishing roots is made all the more desirable by Felicity Jones. But if Ryder’s instincts are correct, this breathtaking beauty is in trouble.
Castle Rock isn’t Felicity’s home. Like her false identity, it’s just a cover. All she wants is enough cash to keep moving to another temporary hideaway—to stay on the run from a secret that’s haunted her for years. As safe as Ryder’s strong embrace makes her feel, she fears that falling for him, and staying in Colorado, will put everyone she’s come to love in danger.
The more Ryder learns about Felicity, the more determined he is not to let her go. It’s time for her to stop running—even as a relentless danger closes in, threatening their love and their lives.
New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author Susan Stoker has a heart as big as the state of Texas where she lives, but this all American girl has also spent the last fourteen years living in Missouri, California, Colorado, and Indiana. She’s married to a retired Army man who now gets to follow her around the country.
She debuted her first series in 2014 and quickly followed that up with the SEAL of Protection Series, which solidified her love of writing and creating stories readers can get lost in.
Ciao, everybody. Hope you had a great weekend. It’s Monday morning, so I thought we ought to start at the beginning.
I’m talking hooks.
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Some people battle the messy middle, others struggle to close. Personally, I’m a person who writes and rewrites her beginnings. Sometimes dozens of times. It’s imperative that I hook the reader in the beginning, and if I’m not feeling it, I’ll do it over and over until I’m satisfied that I do.
There are plenty of ways to execute a successful hook. Today, I’m going to give you a brief rundown of six of them. Before we do that, though, let’s look at what openings should not do.
reveal backstory (weave it in later after readers are invested)
describe a lot (it’s fine to set the scene, but don’t get readers lost in irrelevant minutiae)
introduce too many characters (let us meet the main characters first so we don’t get confused, then you can start to sprinkle in others)
Now, the good stuff…
Six Types and Examples of HooksIn Medias Res
This isn’t one of my favorite hooks—I’ll tell you why in a minute—but I can’t deny it’s effective. “In medias res” is Latin for “in the midst of things” and this type of hook does just that. It drops a reader smack dab in the middle of a situation.
The reason it works: Action is interesting. It gets the heart beating faster.
The reason it could fail: Readers haven’t bonded with any character yet, so there’s a disconnect. In medias res beginnings focus on the action, not the character, so it’s hard to know who to root for. More importantly, why you should care.
If the action is brilliantly crafted, the reader will suspend the need to bond with a character to see how the situation is resolved. If it’s poorly executed, the reader won’t connect with the hero and may walk away from the work.
The solution? Make sure it’s well done. Introduce the hero, the POV character, as soon as possible and make it clear that the reader is rooting for the poor soul.
An example of a successful In Medias Res hook is Stephen King’s The Gunslinger.
The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed.
Yes, it’s telling, not showing. But we give Stephen King a pass on some rules because we know his books deliver. In this case, we’re in the middle of a chase. Show me or tell me, I don’t care. I just want to know what happens.
It’s hard to read a question and not want to discover the answer. Books that begin with questions immediately grab a person’s attention. The readers become investigators, the five Ws swirling in their minds. Who is this? What’s going on? Where are they? When did this happen? Why is it happening to this character? Pique a reader’s curiosity, and she won’t stop without an answer.
It can, but doesn’t have to, be a literal question. Sometimes it’s enough just to make a reader wonder.
An example of a great riddle hook is from Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.
“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”
Who murdered this young girl? And why? Readers will want to read on to find out.
I know, I know. I mention setting a scene, and your mind goes to purple prose. A description of sweeping vistas as the sun sets on the horizon isn’t what I mean. That’s long out of fashion.
I’m talking about that one unique feature of a character’s surroundings that interests a reader and draws them in. This isn’t a good choice when the story could just as easily be told in New York as in Tokyo—a metropolis is a metropolis (usually). But when the scene becomes a character and is crucial to the story, it may be a powerful way to start.
When crafting a scenic hook, keep all of the five senses in mind, but don’t use them all. The visual sense is the one we rely on the most, so to craft a compelling opening by describing the setting, you might want to steer clear of that one in favor of two or three of the others. But if the visual is what is most striking, by all means, use it.
An excellent example of a scenic description as a hook is Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher.
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.
I’m a big fan of witty banter. Starting a story with a clever conversation can be a great hook. It could also backfire. If the dialogue isn’t smart and snappy, people could get confused and lose interest. Remember, a reader doesn’t know the characters yet. If a back-and-forth is going to confuse rather than compel, it’s not worth doing.
A successful example of using dialogue as a hook is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.
“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.”
“That’s what you said about the brother.”
“The brother tested out impossible. For other reasons. Nothing to do with his ability.”
“Same with the sister. And there are doubts about him. He’s too malleable. Too willing to submerge himself in someone else’s will.”
“Not if the other person is his enemy.”
“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”
“If we have to.”
Notice we don’t have anyone’s name. It’s not even clear how many people are speaking. But we’ve learned so much, and it’s all fascinating. This quick back-and-forth shows us a world where someone can look and listen through someone else’s eyes and ears. The subject comes from a family with great abilities and potential, but only one of the kids has been chosen—the last to be tested. And whatever he’s been chosen for is dangerous. He’ll be surrounded by enemies, enemies he can get lost in, which makes him a risk.
There’s a lot more we can surmise, too. But you get the idea. The point is, this opening can easily hook a reader.
This one has been around for a while. One of my favorite examples (and an often-touted example of a “best opening ever”) is from classic literature. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…
The opening does more than just show the diametrically opposed items (best/worst, wisdom/foolishness, light/dark, etc.). Its use of anaphora lends a lyrical quality to the poignant text while the theme of duality (so prominent in the story) is begun here before being carried throughout. This is a powerful use of concept as an opening.
And it’s not necessarily an old-fashioned one.
Consider this opening from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
The novel goes on to explore love in its various forms, from ideal to depraved. The philosophical bent to the opening line immediately has a character, and thus the reader, pondering a nebulous concept.
It’s hard to write a character hook and avoid the info dump that seems to go with character introductions. “Sally had brown hair tied up in a bow, and a dimple only in her left cheek that winked when she smiled.” Character hooks that are a laundry list of descriptions aren’t hooks at all. No one will be interested; no one will read on.
But character introductions that aren’t so much descriptions as they are puzzles? Those can reel a reader in. A good example of a successful character hook is from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
(Maybe I could have stopped with “Call me Ishmael.” That alone makes me wonder about the POV character.)
I should note that I hated Moby Dick. The first page may have interested me, but the subsequent pages did not. So it might be a good time to mention this one very important, unbreakable rule:
It’s good to hook a reader in the beginning, but it’s great to reel them in with equally good middles and ends.
In other words, if you have a stellar hook but a craptastic middle, no one will bother reading to the end (even if it’s fabulous and poignant). That work, and possibly all your other works, will be judged harshly. Remember, it’s not just the beginning that’s important—it’s the entire story. And every story thereafter.
Do you have a preferred technique for hooking a reader? Or perhaps a favorite beginning that hasn’t been mentioned here? Let’s talk about it.
Staci Troilo writes because she has hundreds of stories in her head. She publishes because people told her she should share them. She’s a multi-genre author whose love for writing is only surpassed by her love for family and friends, and that relationship-centric focus is featured in her work.
I usually focus on the nitty-gritty craft of writing, but today I’m going to address a content issue. If you’ve been reading romance for decades, you’ve seen how the genre has changed. Heroines are no longer damsels in distress who need to be rescued by the heroes – they rescue themselves, and maybe the hero as well. Diversity is much more common and covers a broad range of races and mixed-race characters, religions, gender identities and more.
Consent is far more important today and those “forced seduction” scenes no longer fly with most readers. Even books published only a couple of years ago can now look out of touch with the #MeToo movement if consent is in any way questionable.
All this “political correctness” may feel like a burden to some authors, but it is simply a matter of being in tune with your readers and modern society. It’s also an opportunity to influence that society, today and in the future. We can make the world a better place by giving our readers examples of what’s really romantic (consent, respect, and mutual support), and by showing healthy relationships.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have conflict, and perhaps even some offensive behavior, as long as the characters recognize their mistakes and get to a good place in the end. Still, I do think the alpha-hole hero is going to be fading. A protective alpha who is domineering in bed is one thing, but any “hero” who tries to control his love interest’s entire life is going to have to back down pretty darn quickly.
Most romance writers seem to be following these unofficial new guidelines, and readers call them out when they don’t. Yet I see a couple of hurtful tropes still being used. One that is remarkably common is “fat shaming.” How many books, TV shows, and movies show the villain as overweight? Perhaps it’s supposed to show that the character is self-indulgent, but do we really believe that one’s body size reflects one’s character?
One author whose books I otherwise really like does this all the time. The heroines are either tall and slender, or petite. In one series, an older woman becomes a ghost that only the heroines can see. She responds to her new ghostly status by experimenting with fun costumes, something she never would have done in life. She’s difficult in many ways, but she also helps the main characters handle their problems. And yet they make fun of her, with comments such as “Gross” or “I didn’t need to see that” if the ghost character is wearing something tight or revealing over her plump, middle-aged body.
I’m sure the author intended this to be funny, but to me it makes the lead characters seem mean and ungrateful.
In some cases the fat shaming is much more subtle. The lead characters are fit and gorgeous, which is fine – there is often an element of fantasy in romance novels, after all. Other characters may not be directly shamed for their bodies, but if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the only overweight characters are bad people, or maybe comic relief characters. Perhaps the occasional plump older woman shows up in a motherly role or a “matron” with a “vast bosom.” But you won’t see anyone one who is simply a normal person who happens to be heavier without that reflecting on their character.
Meanwhile, the hero may be incredibly fit, even though he’s a Duke or businessman who never seems to exercise, while the heroine as a perfect figure and “the best legs ever,” also without exercise. Sure, romance can be part fantasy, but I’m sorry to say that being a good person does not mean you’re blessed with an effortlessly great body.
My hope is that you’ll think about this as you develop characters and make sure you are not using “overweight” as a shorthand for character flaws.
Here are some other tropes to watch out for:
Using the word “exotic” to describe someone who is not white; it can come across as racist.
The heroine who is “not like other girls,” because she has standards and doesn’t sleep with just anybody. Everyone is welcome to have their own opinions about the value of virginity, chastity etc., but regardless, is it really necessary to make one woman look better by tearing down other women? This is sometimes called “slut shaming.” PS – if your character goes so far as to trash talk or think about other women as sluts and whores, she’ll lose sympathy with some readers.
The evil other woman, who is sexy in a “fake” way because she’s had plastic surgery and/or uses lots of makeup. In contrast, the heroine is “naturally beautiful.” It’s bad enough that women are told their value lies in their beauty. Do we really need to suggest that if they are not confident enough to go out without makeup, they’ve somehow failed? Is it fair to assume that a woman with large breasts must have had implants? Even if you know for sure she did, does that automatically mean she’s a bad person unworthy of love?
As a twist on fat shaming, you might see the woman who is “too thin,” probably maintaining her figure through liposuction or constant harsh dieting. Meanwhile, the lucky heroine keeps her great figure with minimal effort. Let’s stop tearing down other women, please.
I enjoy the blogs Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books in part because the reviewers often discuss these issues. They’ll note them in books they review, and occasionally they have long posts or discussions on one of these topics. Following the blogs is a great way to get insight into how readers react to different books. Seeing how different reviewers rate the same book is also a great reminder of subjectivity. One reader might love a book, another might think it was merely okay, and a third might hate it with a fiery passion because of one small element such as a trope I’ve mentioned above.
Keep the conversation going – Have you found yourself falling into these traps? Can you think of other tropes that seem hurtful or offensive today? Please share in the comments!
Bio: Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance with outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. Fans of Mary Stewart, Barbara Michaels, and Terry Odell will want to check out Kris Bock’s romantic adventures. “Counterfeits is the kind of romantic suspense novel I have enjoyed since I first read Mary Stewart’s Moonspinners.” 5 Stars – Roberta at Sensuous Reviews blog. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page. Sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter for announcements of new books, sales, and more.
Kris writes for children under the name Chris Eboch. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots, while You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers offers great insight to beginning and intermediate writers. Learn more at her website or Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.
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