If My Characters Feel So Real, How Can They Be Imaginary?

My life as a writer has provided me many meetings—some fun and some strange.

Fun meetings involve other writers, some best-selling authors, new authors, and many writes in between. Many have become friends.

Other fun meetings involve readers. Their enthusiasm is catching, and they always have great ideas regarding my characters, which always leads me down a path of thoughtful consideration.

I’ve met and become friends with lots of characters, too. Many of these characters that I’ve read about were created by other writers, and some of these characters came into my life via my hand. I wish I could say that I fully created them. They mostly just pop into my life, fully formed, wanting me to write down their stories.

Such was the meeting of yesterday’s character. Only this character is dark and sinister—not the usual, traditional, likeable character that I want to get to know. Generally, I have to probe to learn about my characters—particularly the wounds they are struggling to overcome, which creates the conflict in the stories. Just as in real life, the wounds are buried deep, so it takes time—often weeks—to reveal these wounds.

But this guy was different. He wasn’t hiding a thing.

So there I was, at one of my favorite restaurants in this small community. The place was crowded, every booth and table taken with people standing at the door waiting.

While waiting for my order to arrive, I was reading, as I typically do when dining alone. I was reading Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, a thriller for sure. Most definitely, it’s a dark story, and I was hooked, oblivious to everyone else around me.

All of a sudden this imaginary character—a drop-dead gorgeous hunk of a man with dark hair and dark eyes—sat down opposite me and said, “I know you.”

And then, he just stared. Waiting. Watching. And sharing his story.

The story, which includes a shocking ending, spewed from his mind to mine telepathically and with a gaze that never wavered. Seeing the end of the story, I broke out in goosebumps and felt my skin crawl.

I have other commitments, I argued.

He didn’t care. He’s wasn’t interested in knowing what I’m already working on, what my plan of writing projects looks like for the rest of the year.

Nope, it’s didn’t matter.

His wound was easy to see. No digging needed on my part.

He’s scary. He’s dark. He’s shallow and yet deep. He’s the bad boys of bad boys, but not in a good way or a fun way. He’s not someone you want in your house at all. That kind of scary.

Looks like I’ll be working on several projects, simultaneously. I have no choice. To get rid of him I have to write the story, and I’m not willing to postpone or abandon the others—even if for a short time.

A story that is going to lead me into the dark, spooky corners of an individual or two, who feels as real as any breathing, talking, blood-in-their-veins person in my life.

I can hardly wait.

::shudder::

As a Writer Should I Blog? What Should I Write?

Often, when a new writer finds out that I blog, I’m asked one or more of the following questions:

Should I blog?

Blogging has different definitions depending on whom you ask. I liken blogging to the old newspaper and magazine columns that we used to read: humor essays, advice columns, recipes, parental or marriage advice, and so forth. For me, blogs should entertain or provide information.

It’s one thing to have a blog that only promotes your work, and it’s another to have a website that features your books, your presentations, your book signings, and where you have a blog, too.

What should I blog about?

1) Your blog should be entertaining or provide information. Entertain by telling a story or provide helpful information about what you do. Share what you know or how you do it. Share stories that involve other writers or your travels. Read other blogs to see what they do. Which ones hold your interest and why?

2) Write each blog so that includes a beginning, a middle, and an end, whether in telling a story or providing information.

3) If your goal is to have readers return to your blog, do you have a place where they can subscribe?

Can I talk about my book at all?

 Most certainly! But in a blog, do it in a way that entertains or provides information about its creation. Anecdotes help sell books but only if you can make that information entertaining. Readers and writers are interested in how you spend your time, what you do every day.

Do I have to blog?

Blogging isn’t for everyone, and not all writers blog. In fact, have you noticed that big-name writers have promotional websites but no blogs. How come? They’re busy writing!!!

I used to write a weekly newspaper column and I remember the time it took to produce those columns. I swore when I began blogging that I would not become a slave to the blog, but guess what? I’ve done just that.

My goal at the beginning of the year was to post in each blog each month. Well, duh! In doing the math, I’m writing a blog a week!  And it’s starting to take away from my story-writing time! So, I’m changing my schedule. I’m going to return to writing the blogs as a fun downtime activity when I need to get away from a story. When I still want to be writing and sharing but when I don’t want to be working on a piece of fiction.

While I admire those writers who can write and blog every week, I’m not one of those people.

My advice that comes from my own lesson learned here is that writing time for my books shouldn’t be sacrificed to the blogs. For me, blogging will be a reward for meeting my writing goals.

What do you think? Do you have a blog schedule you struggle to maintain? Are you a long-time blogger with tricks you’d like to share? Are you a beginning blogger who’s still trying to find a good fit?

When is a Book Ready for a Beta Reader?

I gave a presentation recently, “Self-Editing Made Easier,” to a group of writers who are at varying levels regarding their careers: some are new writers, just finishing the first draft of their first book; a few have multiple books out; a few are traditionally published; and a few going the self- or indie-publishing route.

I was asked, “At what point in my writing, should I give my material to a beta reader?”

My initial response was, when the writing is polished. Discussion followed as to what polished meant. That answer was easy: when it’s ready to send to an agent or publisher, or for the self-published, when the writer believes it is ready to be published.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about my response of when to involve a beta reader, and I began thinking about my own critique group and the readings we do for each other versus the manuscripts I give to my beta readers.

If I could go back to that meeting, here’s what my response would be now:  Whatever you want that beta read to be; whatever you want to get out of them reading your work.

To that end, I think there are two types of beta reads.

Organizational Beta Read

The writer believes there are no more holes, that the characters are likable and believable.

Overall, the job of a beta reader here is to:

  • Find plot holes – where events or the order of events just don’t make sense.
  • Determine if the main characters are likable/unlikable, as the case may be, and to tell the writer why or why not.
  • Point out areas of muddy or unclear meaning. Simply put, some scenes need clarification or more details in order to make sense.
  • Determine if there is too much or not enough backstory if this is a book in a continuing series.

Often readers will discover an author with a later book in the series, not knowing the history of the character up until this time. Consequently, it is the writer’s job to provide just enough of that backstory so that the reader can understand the character’s motives and wounds, but not so much that the reader is bored. That means backstory must be trickled in here and there, like bread crumbs leading the way out of the forest for Hansel and Gretel; but in this case, the bread crumbs lead the way backward into the earlier stories for the reader.

With this particular beta read, there is no focus on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. This type of beta read is often performed in a critique group. The writers want to know early on in the writing before they have polished the writing, if the plot and characters are working. Often, the readers are getting chapters as they are written, because for these writers, it is easier to change the plot here, learning that something does work, rather than making coming back and making major changes once the draft is completed.

The crucial part here is that the writer must tell the readers up front not to worry about the grammatical errors. Instead, they are to be ignored.

Also, before the reading occurs, the writer needs to provide these readers with a short list of problem areas, where the writer already knows that there is a problem.

In most cases, this Organizational Beta Read is just that—a read to spotlight the plot and characterization—and nothing more.

Polished Copy Beta Read

This is the manuscript that has been polished by the writer. Supposedly, all errors have been removed, sentences rewritten, best word choices made, consistent character traits, hair, eye color, and the spelling of their names. Everything is correct and everything makes sense.

The goal for this beta reader is to find any error, any hole, anything that doesn’t make sense.

In conclusion, a beta read can be and should be anything you, as a writer, want it to be. Regardless if the manuscript is a first draft, a polished draft, or a draft in between, clearly communicate what you want from your beta reader.

There’s nothing more frustrating for a beta reader than to discover after the reading 1) that they should have been looking for something in particular, or 2) that they didn’t need to read it as a polished draft when in fact it was a first draft.

So, when is a writing ready for a beta reader?

Answer: Whenever you’re needing feedback. Just be sure to indicate what kind of feedback you’re seeking.

I’m not inspired to write…now, what do I do?

Because I’m on various writing forums, I hear new writers asking, How do I write when I’m not inspired?

When I was a beginning writer, I wrote when inspired. At the time, I had a lot to say. My creative wells, my introspective thoughts had an outlet. Finally.

However, in that those writings, I didn’t consider audience. I didn’t consider structure. I had words on paper due to major streams of consciousness. I had no plan, no goal, so my writing was pure enjoyment.

I wrote because I wanted to. Because I had to. I was exorcising demons. I was opening up wounds and voicing feelings that once relegated to the shadows were now in full sunshine view.

And, then, the drought came.

I had nothing new to write. All my ideas were used up. I had sold some magazine articles but not at the level I wanted. The rejections far outnumbered my sales.

I needed to create new ideas and that’s where the writing became difficult. Additionally, I was young and uneducated, so my ideas were limited by my expertise, of which I had little unless I continued to write about motherhood, marriage, and gardening, none of which interested me anymore as a writer.

So, I started to write fiction. My stories had good beginnings and I knew what the endings would look like, but the journey getting there was like traveling into the desert and getting lost, where the creative juices just dried up, with no water, no oasis in sight. I was trapped among the desert dunes, also known as the sagging middle. I didn’t know what the characters should do, let alone what they should say.

Later, I would discover that I needed to plot more and panster less. But, that’s another blog.

Even after become a plotter and developed solid outlines before the real writing began, the first pages would come fast, followed by days of where I had no inspiration. I knew what the scene should look like, but, oh, putting the picture in my head into words on the page was difficult. The words wouldn’t come. One day, in fact, I sat in front of a blank screen for ten hours. Ten hours! I would start to type, then delete it. I started many sentences and removed every one of them, because nothing sounded right. To me, the writing sounded awful and continued into more awfulness.

How did successful writers do it? I wondered. So, I investigated. Here’s what I learned:

Inspiration isn’t something a writer can wait for or afford to wait for.

There are no shortcuts to inspiration.

There can be hours, days, and even weeks where lots of uninspired writing occurs.

Beginning writers often believe they can’t write unless inspired, but in reality, it’s the other way around.

Waiting for inspiration to occur before you can write is like reading the reaction of a character before the action has occurred. In stories, action occurs first, then the reaction.

In the performance of any writing—regardless of genre, length, audience, or media—the action of doing the writing occurs first. Inspiration will follow. For me, I’m not inspired again until I have completed the first draft, which is why I write the first draft as fast as I can.   That’s another blog, too.

Once I’ve finished that first draft, my inspiration is as high—if not higher—as when I first thought of the idea or when I’ve completed the full outline for the story.

Granted, the initial idea, the seed for the project, is the genesis of a story’s inspiration, but the writing of the idea is gritty work, sometimes dull work, and often painful work: it’s all about putting your butt in the chair and doing the hours, doing the work.

Just start. Don’t strive for perfection. Don’t delete. Don’t edit. Don’t analyze. Don’t second-guess yourself. And, don’t go back and keep rereading from the beginning.

Just write.

Regularly.

Regardless of whether the writing is good or bad.

That’s the secret of eventual successful writing.

The inspiration will come.

P.S. This particular blog went through several complete rewrites, with my not feeling inspired at all. I felt like I was going around in circles. Finally, I realized I was trying to cram three blogs into one. Major cuts occurred. My inspiration and my smile returned with this last draft as I proofed it.

Creating a Cover

For the past month, I’ve been involved with designing two books covers, or rather, I’ve had two different cover designers creating them for me.  In both instances, I had an original vision, but in one instance, I had created an earlier cover myself and tried to go forward with that design.  Thus, that’s the journey I report here.

Once upon a time, I published a book that I titled Fuss and Feathers.  I loved that title.  She was the fuss and he was the feathers, but the editor didn’t.  As a result, Fuss and Feathers became

The Man on the Romance Cover 2The Man on the Romance Cover, and it became the first book to launch the new line of Moonlight Romance by the Starlog Group, creating a romance book in a magazine format.

Personally, I hated the title.  I hated the cover, too.  As the author, I had no artistic control over either.

While the characters matched the faces I envision—after all I had sent magazine ad tear sheets of what I imagined these characters to look like—I didn’t imagine them in this state of undress . . . especially her.

That was the era of bodice rippers.

Then, I got my rights back but was busy with school—writing papers for classes, teaching, and fulfilling my role as administrator—so, the book got shelved for the time being.

Then self-publishing became easier to do.  I thought, why not?  The story was still good.  I’d have to change the cover, due to not owning its copyright, and I wanted to change the title, anyway, along with my name and getting rid of the previous marriage pseudonym.

So, the new book with a new cover became

DH Diana's front coverDetermined Hearts.

At the time, I liked the cover.  I spent time learning new software and probably should have spent more time with the software.  I published it on Smashwords hoping for the best.  Unfortunately, there were no sales.  Nothing.  Of course, I wasn’t promoting it, and now that I think back on it, I can say my not liking the cover probably influenced my lack of promotion.  Consequently, I unpublished it.

Which brings us to February 2016.

I was ready to do the book justice.  The story was still good after I re-read it, at least in my opinion, though it did need updating and having errors that six other editors didn’t catch, fixed.

I contacted a designer, telling her that I wanted to put my hero in the background and possibly add a camera, placing it on the rock.  After all, the chipmunk, camera, and eagle were featured in the book, so why not?

We ended up with this:  Determined Hearts - Cover Final High Resolution

While said I was okay with the image as it had been my vision and we’d gone to a LOT of trouble finding the right body and matching it with a different head (the wonders of artistic manipulation!), there was something not right with the picture.  And, I couldn’t determine what that something was.

I knew the eagle wasn’t right, nor the camera, despite how many times we tweaked it and how much I wanted them there.  Even the bright light in the background bothered but I couldn’t say why.

And then, I saw the entire flat – the back and front cover combined, with the designer having chosen the back cover landscape. (But yeah, overall, it doesn’t look good, does it?)

Determined Hearts Full Cover - Flat with old ebook cover

Immediately, I knew what was wrong.

The back didn’t match the front and I loved, loved, LOVED the back cover landscape.  The front cover landscape was okay, but I loved the other more.

And then, she showed me the entire flatWooded Scene

and I was enamored.  This was my cover!  By now, we were both giddy about the future composition.

I wanted him placed on the front cover still, but up in the trees, reducing him in size.  We decided to place the chipmunk on the log.

Determined Hearts - Prototype Cover 2 (5)

The result:   A man who looks like he wants to ax murder a chipmunk!!!

(Are you laughing yet?)

I still laugh every time I look at this picture.  In all honesty, I can’t blame the designer.  She was following my wishes, my design.  Actually, she must have been cringing all along the way, wishing I wasn’t so stuck on my choices.

The landscape still looked good, but my hero had to go.  He was starting to look too angry, with an ax to grind.  (Groan.)

I needed a different hero.  In fact, I decided that the cover needed a couple.  The designer liked that idea.

I sent her a picture that I absolutely loved, asking if it was possible to use them on the cover even though they didn’t have legs showing and the fact that her hair was auburn rather than the blonde tresses that my original heroine was born with.

The designer sent me this. Determined Hearts - 1600 Cover eBook Final

Immediately, I knew this was my cover.

It was far easier for me to change the color of her hair within the pages then it would be for us to try tweaking the image.

And so, the cover was finished.

What a journey.  Probably close to 100 e-mail exchanges over several weeks, but we finally arrived a final product.

Behind the scenes, for any author who is self-publishing and working with a cover designer, there are a lot of decisions that go into creating a cover.  And, it’s always a collaboration—not always an easy one, but one that is totally worthwhile when the results are this fabulous.

Oh, and now we’re into the era of embraces and washboard chests.  I’m okay with that.

Update:  Determined Hearts is available for sale.

 

 

 

Error-Free Writing

When I made the decision to leave academic teaching and become a full-time writer, I knew the days would be long.  I had this vision that I would be writing new prose every day.

Now that I’ve been at this new full-time career for more than a month, the only new prose I’ve written has been for my blogs, writing up reviews and comments for others, and revising book blurbs.

The biggest project I’ve taken on has been to edit two of my books that I’m getting ready to publish.  Moreover, I’m finding that editing a book, any book these days, takes days rather than just hours.

The downside of any writing is that no matter how many hours one spends looking for errors, there will always be a few escapees.  Such is the case regarding my soon-to-be-republished book, Determined Hearts, which was first published in 1994 as The Man on the Romance Cover.

At that time I wrote The Man on the Romance Cover, I had no formal schooling in writing.  I was a self-taught writer depending on my high school education of grammar and punctuation, which was better than most as I’d had a wonderful shorthand teacher–yes, shorthand.  We not only had to punctuate our work properly, but when reading back the text, we had to include the punctuation and state what rule it follow:  introductory comma, conjunction comma, and so forth.  As a result, I learned more about punctuation in that class than I ever did in any of my English classes.  (Thank you, Mrs. Rhinehardt!)

The Man on the Romance Cover was published via a traditional publisher, with the traditional line editor(s).  In fact, that book went through half a dozen different readings by as many individuals.

Rereading the book last summer, I found that the story still stands.  Since I had rights to the book, I decided to reprint it.  The downside is that I found errors.  So, I fixed them.  Or, so I thought.

Having removed the book from Smashwords where it had been published since last summer, I just spent the last two days rereading the book.  Oh, the errors that I found.  I’m chagrined to think that I had this book for sale with all those errors, still.

In another week or so, it’ll be up on Amazon and available as both an eBook and print copy.  I’m doing my best to make it error free.  But guess what?  I’m only human.  I’m sure there will be an error somewhere that some reader will find and will want to pull out their red pencil to mark.

I hope I’ve done a better job this time, but if not, do me a favor.  Should you find errors in my work, send me an e-mail.  I’m human enough to want to fix them and make your reading pleasure, well, more pleasurable.

Part II – Genesis & Development of Grendel’s Mother

The choices I made and why.

So, I had an idea for this book, Grendel’s Mother, and I had 20 or so pages written.

I knew how my story started, and I knew how it would end, but I had only a vague idea about a few special events in the middle.  During the next few years, I would add scenes that I would write out and then file away.  I’d jot notes on napkins, scraps of paper, and on the backs of bookmarks.  Everything went into a file folder.  Then, in 2006, I took all these bits of scenes and dialogues and strung them together, and developed a detailed outline.

I worked on her characterization: her dreams, desires, fears, and flaws.  I knew she would be young.  At first, I had her as fourteen, but then realized that would be too young, so I made her fifteen.  She was a precocious creature, thinking the rules didn’t really apply to her.  Consequently, that thinking always got her into trouble.

In 2009, I began my Ph.D, so once again, all creative writing came to a halt while I wrote academic papers.  With my Ph.D. in hand, I had to make a decision: would I continue writing academically or would I return to my creative writing roots?  I couldn’t do both while working full-time, with most of my time spent teaching, grading papers, and as an administrator for the English Department.

I choose creative writing with the support of my supervisor.  In earnest, the draft writing began.

The writing was not easy.  I found myself jumping from first person to third person but predominately, I was writing in first person.  Which should I use?

I was using both present and past tense.  Again, I found myself asking, which should I use?

I decided not to make a decision until I completed the first draft.  In the end, the book became a first-person, present-tense story, except for a brief period when Grendel’s mother goes back in time, which starts in past tense and then evolves into present tense again because the story brings that back story into the present.

While I had given this character a name, I realized mid-way through the first draft that her name hadn’t been used.  Should it be said?  Was it necessary to know her name?  I ended up naming her but her name is never mentioned in the story.  I chose this route deliberately, even when as a child, Grendel asks his mother what is her name?  She tells him to call her what he always has—Mother.

My outline didn’t include Beowulf characters, not until   Grendel becomes a teenager and starts fighting Hrothgar’s thanes.  While Hrothgar is mentioned early in the story, the others—the thanes and Beowulf—don’t appear until Grendel tangles with them.  In the end, this story is a stand-alone tale of a woman who stands alone, as the only daughter in a large family of brothers, as an outcast from her community, sacrificed to a dragon, and who creates a home in the wilderness, becoming one with Nature, where she gives birth and raises her son.

A reader doesn’t require prior knowledge of Beowulf to understand the story, and yet the story is made richer with that knowledge.  Because I was concerned about readers not having prior Beowulf knowledge, when I was looking for Beta readers, I chose one reader with no knowledge, one with some, and one who had good knowledge of Beowulf.

In the end, all three readers agreed:  it didn’t matter if the reader had Beowulf knowledge or not.

Interestingly enough, the reader with no knowledge has since gone out and purchased Seamus Heaney’s translation in her desire to know more about the epic poem.

Purposefully, I designed this story as a literary and commercial work of art.  While literary, it can easily rest on a traditional mainstream bookstore shelf.  My desire was to craft a story that would appeal to audiences of both young adult, new adults, and adults in general, much like The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games, The Divergent series, and others books have achieved.

So how long did it take me to finish that first draft?

Once I made the determination that I would finish it as soon as possible, with the help of both in-person and virtual write-ins that I attended, I was able to complete the first draft, revised it, and polish it in just a few months.

It was during my writing of Grendel’s Mother that I learned that Beowulf was J.R.R. Tolkien’s inspiration for The Hobbit, that George R. R. Martin’s, The Game of Thrones series was inspired by Tolkien.  And, I have to imagine that many works of today’s fiction and TV series were similarly inspired.