Category Archives: Writing Tips

Combating the Darkness: Inside the Writing Process of Multi-Bram Stroker Award Winner Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry

There are few horror writers out there today as prolific as New York Times’ bestselling author  Jonathan Maberry, who won the Bram Stoker Award for his first horror novel, Ghost Road Blues, in 2007, and has gone on to receive horror fiction’s most prized honor three additional times. As I write this post, he is nearing completion of his 25th novel.

A multi-dimensional writing talent, Maberry is known not only for his adult novels such as Dead of Night and Patient Zero, but also for his comic books and his YA books. ROT & RUIN, a SciFi novel set in post-zombie-apocalypse and told through the eyes of 15-year-old Benny Imura, made it on Booklist’s Top 10 Horror fiction for Youth in 2011 and is now in development for film.

Maberry is a busy guy  but not too busy to make time to share his writing journey DragonConLogowith other aspiring authors. At this year’s Dragon*Con convention in Atlanta, I had the privilege to hear him speak on two author panels and included some of his more memorable soundbites on my DragonCon wrap-up blog post.

Dead of Night Book OneA week before Halloween, while in the throes of reading book one of Maberry’s Dead of Night series, I asked him to be featured on The Writing Well. He not only agreed, but he also responded to my questions within a few hours  the day before a major trip.  That says it all.

Here’s our Q&A about his journey as a writer — sit back with your favorite Halloween brew and enjoy!

 

THE WRITING WELL: What drew you as a writer to the dark themes that are prevalent in your novels, especially the zombie-apocalypse?

 

JONATHAN MABERRY: I know monsters firsthand. I was raised in an intensely abusive household and in a very violent and very poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. My father was a

Beloved and wacky Harry Potter character, Luna Lovegood.

Wacky Harry Potter character, Luna Lovegood.

genuine monster. A couple of things cast a little light into that darkness. My grandmother (imagine Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter movies as an old lady) was very knowledgeable about folklore, myths and legends, mostly from Europe. She gave me many books to read, told me wonderfully creepy stories, and encouraged me to imagine the endings to the folk tales she’d tell. And my middle school librarian encouraged me to read science fiction, fantasy and horror. She knew I wanted to write and my stories tended toward the dark. She was also the secretary for a couple of clubs of professional writers, and so was able to introduce me to some of the members. They included Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison and others. Those writers, especially Bradbury and Matheson, took me under their wings, offered advice and critiques of my stories, and they encouraged me to read even deeper.

However one thing to note is that I don’t write about monsters. I write about people who confront monsters. I don’t write about darkness. I write about people who combat darkness. The difference is significant.

THE WRITING WELL: Why do you think that genre is so compelling to people (as evident by the phenomenal success of “The Walking Dead”?
walking-dead

JONATHAN MABERRY: We are all afraid of something, even the bravest of us. I’m now a big man and I’ve been studying martial arts for over fifty years. I’m an 8th degree black belt in jujutsu, a member of the international martial arts hall of fame, and a former professional bodyguard. I’m not afraid of, say, a maniac with a knife, but that doesn’t mean I’m free from fear. I fear diseases, mishandled technologies, religious extremism, and so on. Things that are too big (or, in the case of pathogens, too small) for me to fight. Those are things that I can’t defend my family against. We all understand fear.

Horror fiction allows us to explore extreme cases of fear. Zombies are a perfect example of that. We see the zombie outbreak in books, TV, comics and movies and we wonder how we would survive. Could we, in fact, survive? Could we keep our families safe? Could we fight back and win? This same what-if thinking flows over into stories about vampires, werewolves, pernicious spirits, and so on. We walk through the shadows of fictional horror carrying a torch of our own optimism and imagination.

Shows like “The Walking Dead” are not about zombies. They are about people trying to rebuild their lives after catastrophic damage. The title of the show, by the way, does not refer to the zombies. Robert Kirkman has been quite eloquent in explaining that Rick, Daryl and the others are the ‘walking dead’. The lives they once lived have ended and they are searching for a new place to be alive again. Fiction allows us to share that journey and apply much of it to our own lives.

 

THE WRITING WELL: How would you describe your writing process?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I am a methodical writer. I’m deeply passionate about the craft of writing and I love the business aspects as well. It’s both my job and my calling. Since it is my job, I put in the hours. I write every day. I hit my deadlines. I expand my business by developing new stories, I manage my own social media (I do ten minutes of social media every hour of my writing day), and I devote time to cultivating and supporting other writers.

 

On a typical workday I spend two to four hours each morning, usually working at a coffee shop. Then I hit the gym or go for a long walk with the dog. In the afternoon I return home and do another four hours in my office there. I try to write 3-4 thousand words per day. A bit less if I’m traveling, at a convention, or giving a talk. More if I’m closing in on a deadline. This year I’ll have written four and a half novels, twenty-two short stories, a dozen issues of comic books, and appeared at thirty-one events.

 

THE WRITING WELL: Do you write first from a character or a plot premise? 

 

JONATHAN MABERRY: I do both. My stories usually start with characters. They usually wander out of the back of my mind and into a story that’s forming based on something I’ve seen, read, or cooked up. Once I know the character, I think about what the character wants and what he needs. At that point I sit down and hammer out a loose plot. I always allow my stories to change in the telling, of course, because it’s unreasonable to assume that you had all your best ideas the day you outlined your book.

 

Once in a while a plot premise will come first, but as soon as I have that I shift gears to examine the human element of the story. Stories are about people, not events. That’s critical to good storytelling.

 

THE WRITING WELL: At a Dragon*Con panel you said you always run your stories by your wife for feedback. What was the most memorable feedback she ever provided?

Authors AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry at the 2015 Dragon*Con held in Atlanta.

Authors AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry at the 2015 Dragon*Con held in Atlanta.

JONATHAN MABERRY: One of the most important aspects of my creative interactions with my wife, Sara Jo, is that she is all about characters. She will call me on it if a character is ever acting contrary to their presumed nature. She calls it ‘acting out of integrity’. She is invariably correct. She isn’t a writer, but her understanding of people is superb, insightful, and wise.

 

We met walking in a park. Well, I was walking and she was jogging. The person with whom I was walking was a mutual friend, so Sara Jo stopped to talk. She and I had a little moment of shared electricity. But I thought she was married, and she thought I was dating the woman I was strolling with. Neither was the case. When Sara Jo found out I was single, she called me. I have never much believed in the ‘love at first sight’ thing, but you can call me a convert now.

 

THE WRITING WELL: Finally, what aspect of your own craft have you worked on the hardest to master or fine tune  (the thing that perhaps didn’t come as easily)? How can up-and-coming writers  do to get their writing to the next level?

 

JONATHAN MABERRY: Fiction was the real challenge for me. Even though I wrote stories as a kid, I planned to become a newspaper reporter. I went to Temple University to study journalism, and while I was there I began selling magazine feature articles. For twenty-five years I wrote articles, columns, and reviews for magazines of all kinds. While teaching at Temple University I began writing textbooks –not on writing, but on martial arts history, women’s self-defense, and related topics). And I also wrote greeting cards, song lyrics, poetry, plays, how-to manuals, training scripts, and a slew of other materials. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I decided to try fiction. It was an experiment and I had no formal training in creative writing. None.

To teach myself the craft, I read everything I could, and then I began deconstructing my favorite novels in the genre in which I wanted to write. I read those books as a reader, and then I re-read them multiple times as a writer, breaking them down to the three acts, then to outlines, studying the elements of figurative and descriptive language, voice, pace, tension, action, dialogue. All of it. When I felt that I was ready I outlined a novel and began writing. It took me over three years to finish that book, and another six months to revise it.

bramstokerThat’s the point at which I had to go out and find an agent. I got a good one, too. Sara Crowe, currently of the Harvey Klinger Agency. Sara sold my first novel, Ghost Road Blues, and its two sequels to Kensington’s Pinnacle imprint. The book surprised the hell out of me by winning the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. That award seriously validated my decision to try fiction. As I write this I’m three days away from finishing my 25th novel. And I write short stories and comics. Fiction is virtually everything I do in this phase of my writing career, and I have very little interest in looking back at my nonfiction days. Two of those novels are in development for film and another is in development for TV; and I’m adapting Ghost Road Blues into a pilot for a potential series.

However, I’m still learning the craft. It’s fun but not easy, and I believe it is incumbent on every writer to try and better their best. Always.

Dragon*Con 2015 — Memorable Moments

StormTroopers

300 BC

I attended my fourth Dragon*Con this past weekend after a two-year hiatus and it didn’t disappoint. The event – dubbed “the wildest geek convention on the planet” by TripAdvisor – drew 65,000 fantasy and scifi fans to downtown Atlanta.

Sherrilyn Kenyon and I.

In honor of the annual Labor Day weekend spectacle, The Writing Well is sharing a few pearls of wisdom from some of the literary set of speakers who I heard present on author and writing panels (see last section of post).

Touching Tributes to Nimoy, Lee

Before going there, I want to pay homage to some of the entertainment panels I attended this year. As a fan of classic Trek, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, I was thrilled to attend the tribute to Leonard Nimoy and iconic British actor Christopher LeeChristopher

Lee, who passed away in February and in June of this year, respectively. A few interesting notes about Lee I learned: he spoke seven languages, made a heavy metal album and was the only Lord of the Rings cast member who actually met J.R.R. Tolkien (and read the books every year).

Nimoy
As for Nimoy, I could devote an entire blog to my favorite scifi actor. He was much more than the token alien cast opposite Captain Kirk on Trek; he was an accomplished director, photographer and poet with seven books under his name. He touched all of those outcasts in the world who were nerdy before nerdy was cool.

He also had a record album produced named appropriately, Highly Illogical. He was well liked and respected by his cast members – he was accepting of certain cast members who were not well liked.

He hated being typecast as Spock in the early years but grew to appreciate the character and what Spock symbolized well beyond the series– a half-human and half-Vulcan who struggled to balance his warring halves and to belong. His final tweet to followers before his death on Feb. 27 reflected his wisdom and humanity: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.” He signed the tweet off with “LLAP,” a nod to his famous Spock moniker, “live long and prosper.”

Snodgrass and Star Trek TNG
Vendor_StarTrekArtworkI also attended Melinda Snodgrass’s highly entertaining session on her early work as a screenwriter for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” A good friend to author George R.R. Martin, Melinda got her break when she penned “A Measure of a Man” on spec.

Many fans consider it one of the greatest episodes featuring the android character, Data, as well as one of the best of Star Trek – the inspiration for the episode was the famous Dred Scott case. Data goes on trial and Captain Picard must prove he is legally a sentient being with rights and freedoms under Federation law when transfer orders demand Data’s reassignment for study and disassembly.

“Trek had never shot an episode like this that was very dialogue-heavy – it was a court room drama. When they finished shooting, it was 13 minutes too long so they cut 13 minutes out of it,” recalled Snodgrass. She was snuck a copy of the director’s cut with the full footage. She kept it until CBS Television decided to do a Blu-ray version of the series and requested her copy back.

One of the scenes in the extended version was between Picard and his first officer, Wil Riker, played by Jonathan Frakes where the two men were fencing. While Patrick Stewart was an accomplished fencer, Frakes wasn’t given time to learn technique for the scene and had to settle for doing the voiceover as an acting double fought Picard.

“I like the scene because I always thought Riker was overlooked and not given proper stature. He often ended up seeming weak,” Snodgrass said, pointing out how the character turned down the chance to command his own ship, preferring to remain on the Enterprise. “I wanted to see some rivalry. Jonathan nailed it – he said, ‘I’m going to beat you. I’m going to win.’ I like what they did in that moment. There was some power there.”

Six - BSGThe long queue line was worth it to attend the celebrity panel of “Battlestar Galactica,” the 2004 to 2009 remake of the 70s hit by Ronald D. Moore. Who doesn’t love Cylons – including BattlestarGalacticathe six impersonators of “Six” in the audience and Commander Adama (played by the incomparable Edward James Olmos)?

 

A few of my favorite costumes:

StarWars_Beauty Outlander The ShiningDragonCon_Constume2 DragonCon_Costume Avatar Mother and ChildSuperman_WonderWomanWeepingAngel_Dr Who

Writing Wisdom from Dragon*Con’s Wordsmiths:

NYT Bestselling Author Panel (L to R) Laurell K. Hamilton, Peter Hamilton, Michael Stackpole and Jim Butcher.

NYT Bestselling Author Panel (L to R) Laurell K. Hamilton, Peter Hamilton, Michael Stackpole and Jim Butcher.

#1 “I think my English literature degree set me back two years – telling a story is not the kind of thing you learn in an English class.” — Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files

LaurellKHamilton

Laurell K. Hamilton

#2If I over-outline it takes away the impetus for me to write.” – Laurell K. Hamilton, author of The Anita Blake Series

#3 The characters I have the most fun with are the ones whose views I never share.” – Peter F. Hamilton, Dragon*Con Literary Guest of Honor

 

Carol Barrowman

Carol Barrowman

#4 “When you’re done with your novel, put the whole book on a page, then a paragraph and then a tagline; you should be able to talk about your book in 30 seconds.” – Carole Barrowman, co-author of children’s book series, Hollow Earth, with brother, John Barrowman

#5 “I love drawing on real people. Writers are eavesdroppers and peeping toms (without looking through blinds). A lot of my characters are often amalgamations of real people. I knew a Quaker and I made him a pornographer who does snuff films. He loved it!” — Jonathan Maberry

#6 “[When using beta readers] one of the things I found helpful is to have them assign ABCD to passages – A is for awesome, B is for bored, C is for confused and D is for don’t care.” – A.J. Huntley

Lane and Ruckus Skye, husband-wife filmmakers

Lane and Ruckus Skye, husband-wife filmmakers

#“7How do you write realistic dialogue? How do you make it ‘real?’ Think of what the world would say – eavesdropping on people talking. One trick: they don’t talk in compete sentences – words drop.” – Lane Skye, independent filmmaker

Lou Anders

Lou Anders

#8 “Story begins with a character who wants something – you boil it down to what they want most and what’s the worst thing that can happen to them? And it does.” – Lou Anders

AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry

AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry

#9 “Books are organic. I allow for organic growth – which often calls for changes in storytelling.”
– Jonathan Maberry

#10 “Characters come to life when I know their voice – I know how they will respond to certain situations.” – Naomi Novik

#11 “Story has to come first.” – Delilah Dawson

#12 “Never give up.” – Sherrilyn Kenyon

 

 

Q&A with Pam Jenoff, Author of The Kommandant’s Girl

Kommandant's Girl

I recently asked prolific historical fiction author Pam Jenoff how she does it all.  The Cambridge-trained historian, law professor and mother of three has written eight books beginning with her breakout novel,  The Kommandant’s Girl, in 2007.

“Poorly,” jokes Jenoff, who takes inspiration from her favorite quote from Anne Lamott, “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink.”  She adds, “You just have to shut out all the noise and do it. The truth is I love all of the things I do: writing, teaching as a law school professor, the kids. If I hit Powerball I would still do all three, just a bit slower. But until then I have to make it work.”

Many of Jenoff’s novels are set in Poland during or after WWII. Jenoff, an expert on Poland and the Holocaust, is the former vice-consul for the U.S. State Department in Krakow.  I discovered Jenoff reading an Amazon review of the The Kommandant’s Girl, a story of a 19-year-old Jewish newlywed who is separated by her husband, a leader of Poland’s resistance, when Nazi tanks thunder into her native Poland. She eventually is smuggled out of the Jewish ghetto, assuming a new identity as a gentile. She then faces risks to her safety and heart when she becomes the reluctant assistant to Krakow’s enigmatic kommandant.  Jenoff’s writing, pacing and all-too-real characters were so compelling I couldn’t put the book down from the opening paragraph to the tension-filled conclusion.

Below, Jenoff shares more about her journey as a storyteller and her next novel set to come out this July.

Q&A with Pam Jenoff on her Writing Journey

 Pam Jenoff

Q. What kind of stories are you drawn to? Did you always want to write?
I always wanted to be a writer but all through my many years in school and living abroad, when I had plenty of time to write, I never really got started. The turning point for me was 9/11: I became an attorney and began to practice on September 4, 2001- exactly one week before 9/11. That tragic day served as an epiphany for me that I did not have forever; if I had been one of the 9/11 victims I never would have realized my dream of being a novelist. So I took a course at Temple University night school called “Write Your Novel This Year.” And that’s just what I did.

I’ve been drawn to many kinds of books, but historical fiction has always had a strong hold on me. But as a child I just loved great storytelling in general, everything from Lord of the Rings to Mary Poppins.

Q. Your work with the US State Department in Poland was the impetus for your first book, The Kommandant’s Girl. What was it about the Polish community you met in your travels that made you want to capture their spirit in a novel?

Jews being marched out of the Krakow ghetto in March 1943.

Jews being marched out of the Krakow ghetto in March 1943.

I was sent to Poland by the State Department as a junior diplomat and spent 2 ½ years in Krakow. It was a unique moment in time when Poland was dealing with many issues from the war that had never been resolved during the communist era. I found myself involved in issues such as preservation of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism and restitution of property. I also became very close to the community of survivors who became like grandparents to me. My time there was both rewarding and challenging, both personally and professionally and I came out of those years moved and changed by what I had experienced. I knew I wanted to write a novel reflecting that.
Q. You really brought to life the internal demons, fear and heroism of your characters, especially Emma Bau, the young Jewish wife caught up in the Nazi atrocities in war-time Poland. Did real people inspire some of your characters — especially Emma, her husband, her husband’s aunt and the Kommandant?

All of my characters are fictitious. But while I was writing The Kommandant’s Girl, I learned the true story of the Krakow Jewish resistance – a story I had never learned in all of my years of living in Poland because everyone who was a part of it died during the war. That story became the inspiration for The Kommandant’s Girl.
Q. What do you consider the strongest element of your brand of storytelling? What do you want your readers to get from your writing?

I like to explore the way that ordinary lives are changed by extraordinary circumstances – say a young girl who but for the war would have lived a traditional life but now finds herself tested and put in remarkable situations. I also like to explore the gray areas in people and test reader’s preconceived notions. So, for example, my Nazis are real people, my Jewish characters are flawed and my Poles are everywhere in between. This comes from my time in Poland when I found so many of my notions of what had happened during the war tested and redrawn.

Q. You have gone on to write several other novels. What lessons have you learned along the way that you wish you’d known when you first started?

Oh goodness, I am still just figuring it all out. But I’ve learned a few really valuable things: first, that there is this amazing community of writers out there and if you reach out and support others you receive that support back a hundred-fold. It makes the whole thing so much less lonely. Second, the greatest thing about the internet age is the ability for readers and writers to connect and develop sustained on-going relationships. Not just me sending out an e-mail once a year saying “Hey buy my new book” but for us to have meaningful conversation. There is nothing more sustaining when I wake up in the predawn hours to write than a message from a reader saying hello. I love hearing from readers and skyping with book clubs. Please find me on Facebook, Twitter or wherever you hang out.

Q. I know you have a new book coming out in July 2015. Can you tell us about it and whether it is a departure from your earlier books?

THE LAST SUMMER AT CHELSEA BEACH will be out in late July. It is the story of Adelia Montforte, a Jenoff_LastSummerat ChelseaBeachyoung Italian Jewish immigrant who comes to America alone and falls in with the neighboring four Irish Catholic Connally boys at the shore right as American enters the war and everything changes. I am so very excited about this book, which is a huge departure for me in that it is set on the home front while keeping with the WWII era that is so beloved to me and my readers.

 

Q. Any final words of advice to those who are still working on that first novel?

Don’t quit your day job! Kidding, though the road to publication is long and it helps to have income and a support network. But I think three things have made the difference for me in publishing. First, discipline, the ability to make that writing time for myself (because no one else will do it for me.) Second, tenacity. For a long time it did not look as though my first book was going to be published and the ability to keep knocking on that door until it opened was huge. Finally, I think the ability to revise – to take someone else’s feedback and make it your own – is key.

(Jenoff adds that she recently completed the 100 Days of Writing Challenge where she worked on her current book every day.)  “Sometimes it was just a half an hour but it felt great to touch the paper or keyboard everyday, so much so that I have just started my second 100 days. Also I don’t believe in writer’s block and I have developed systems to avoid it, like taking notes the night before so that when I’m bleary eyed at five am I have prompts from which I can start writing,” she says.

About the Author

pam-jenoffPam Jenoff was born in Maryland and raised outside Philadelphia. She attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge University in England. Upon receiving her master’s in history from Cambridge, she accepted an appointment as Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Army. The position provided a unique opportunity to witness and participate in operations at the most senior levels of government, including helping the families of the Pan Am Flight 103 victims secure their memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, observing recovery efforts at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing and attending ceremonies to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World War II at sites such as Bastogne and Corregidor.

Following her work at the Pentagon, Pam moved to the State Department. In 1996 she was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland. It was during this period that Pam developed her expertise in Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust. Working on matters such as preservation of Auschwitz and the restitution of Jewish property in Poland, Pam developed close relations with the surviving Jewish community.

Pam left the Foreign Service in 1998 to attend law school and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. She worked for several years as a labor and employment attorney both at a firm and in-house in Philadelphia and now teaches law school at Rutgers.

Pam is the author of eight novels. Her first book, The Kommandant’s Girl, was an international bestseller and nominated for a Quill award. Other novels include The Winter Guest, The Diplomat’s Wife, The Ambassador’s Daughter, Almost Home, A Hidden Affair and The Things We CherishedThe Kindle version of The Kommandant’s Girl is presently on sale for just $1.99 on Amazon.

A Glimpse Behind One Debut Novelist’s Collaborative Writing Approach

another_vanishing_act_21

It’s fun to reconnect with colleagues, especially fellow writers like Pasquale (Pat) Russo, a veteran corporate communicator and ghost writer, who I worked with when we both wrote for AT&T’s employee newspaper in the mid-1990s. It was a great experience with our editorial team winning a Gold Quill Award for best employee paper by the International Association of Business Communicators.

While our paths haven’t crossed in the years since leaving AT&T, Pat and I were on parallel paths —  pursuing book projects and taking on writing consulting work. Pat’s debut novel, now available on Amazon and in major bookstores online, is the culmination of a creative collaboration with his father-in-law.  Below, Pat shares an excerpt of his story before delving into his own creative journey penning  Another Vanishing Act.

He shares his  hard-won lessons gleaned from working collaboratively on a book and self-publishing.

* * * * * * * *

Today started out as an okay day. I was having my mid-morning coffee break with Mr. Carson and was looking forward to having dinner with Betty. That was before I got the surprise phone call that changed everything.

I’ve had plenty of strange calls from residents – at my previous job and at this one. But this is the first time that I didn’t know quite how to respond. I hope that I managed to say something reassuring before the call ended.

Mr. Carson was sitting nearby and must have seen my earlier, light-hearted mood vanish, replaced by a strange, puzzled expression as I hung up the phone. 

“What happened, Dan? What’s wrong?”

“A toilet on the third floor…”

“Backed up? Overflowed?”

I stuttered as I tried to get out one word.

“Exploded…”

Mr. Carson looked at me like I’d jolted him with an electric cattle prod. 

— Excerpt from Another Vanishing Act used with permission (copyright 2014)

 * * * * * * * *
Author Q&A

 

Q. The premise for your recently released comic novel is quite compelling. What was the inspiration for choosing a senior citizen’s apartment building as the setting?

 

A. My father-in-law and co-author – Pete – moved into a similar place a few years back. He cooked up a story by stretching his new reality like Silly Putty. He’d been playing around with his tale and asked me to look at his outline and some of his ideas. I sent him a draft and we were off and running.

Working with him on the story was like collaborating with Henny Youngman. He came up with one gag after another and I had to keep reminding him that we had to fit them into a storyline.

Pete has a different sense of humor. He goes to a restaurant and tells the waitress he’s never ordered from a menu before. Could she help him? He came to my wedding to give away the bride wearing his tuxedo and old running shoes. He told the groomsmen that he couldn’t afford the shoe rental. You can see this type of silliness reflected in many of the chapters.

Q. Some of the characters are extremely vivid– how were you able to master voices for these elderly characters — especially since you are not of that generation?

 A. I’ve always been something of a mimic. I was active in school plays and drama classes, and always loved movies and watching comedians. So you might say that I simply got in character. While this was my first attempt at fiction, it was clear sailing once a voice got in my head and started running with it.

Some of the characters didn’t seem to need any encouragement from me; they just appeared in my head and I pushed them onto the page. Others struck me as a bit stereotypical, like the curmudgeonly woman who raps her friend with her cane. I suspect she was inspired by the “Where’s the beef” lady.

 

Q. What were the pros and cons of working with a collaborator on this project? Any tips for maximizing a positive creative relationship when there are two authors?  

A. Stephen King compared collaborating with novelist Peter Straub to a

Stephen King

Stephen King

game of tennis. They drew a court, developed a synopsis and then emailed the ball back and forth.

Our situation was different because there was only one writer. Even so, we constructed the pieces King describes. Over a weekend, we planned three acts, sketched out each chapter, and designed an ending. Agreeing on these items was necessary so we could evaluate ideas to see if they contributed to the storyline.

A division of labor is also important. Pete was the idea guy, so when I got stumped, I’d send him my draft and we’d talk. Having him as a sounding board was helpful. He was also good at commenting on  drafts, pointing out what was working and what wasn’t when I got too close to be objective.

Good chemistry between collaborators is a must. If your partner doesn’t “get” you, it’s going to be a long slog in the mud. It helped that we’d known each other for years, had some common likes and dislikes, and shared a quirky sense of humor. The timing also had to be right. Before starting Another Vanishing Act, I’d been ghostwriting for a number of years and was ready for something completely different. That’s when Pete showed up.

Our partnership worked extremely well. I think that enjoyment factor comes through in the story.

Q. What was your experience going the self-publishing route? Any lessons learned? Things you would do the same or differently?

A. As a first-time novelist, I knew that landing a publisher would be a tough process with a steep timeline. The only drawback of self-publishing was the stigma, which is slowly vanishing.

But self-publishing is a lot of work. Once the story’s done, you have to develop cover ideas, layout the interior, create a back cover blurb, and find a competent artist to render a professional-looking cover. You need different versions for e-book and printed editions. I’d done most of this work for my ghostwriting clients, so I was familiar with the process. Anyone who goes in this direction should be prepared.

My biggest struggle was with the page layout. Next time, I’ll hire an artist. And oddly enough, coming up with a title for the book was tough. One of us would like something that the other thought was awful. It was like picking a name for a child.

Q. Where can readers order your book?

A. You can order a paperback edition from a local bookstore, or from Barnes & Noble or Amazon. A Kindle version is also available.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. There are a few possibilities. Pete is engineering another tale that sounds promising. I’ve been itching to try my hand at developing a screenplay. In the meantime, I always hear the call of the marketing plan.

About the Authors

PatRusso_CoAuthorPhotoLouis “Pete” Conner is the instigator behind Another Vanishing Act. A retired engineer, Pete lives in a seniors’ apartment building in New Jersey, where he invents comic situations and dreams up characters for the fictional tale he imagined. Pete is a graduate of Georgia Tech.

Pasquale “Pat” Russo — a lifelong wiseguy — was summoned to assist his fath2275_1081559848013_2319_ner-in-law (yes, it’s a family job) when Pete realized he couldn’t string together a coherent sentence.  Pat was the ghostwriter of One Marshal’s Badge and is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.

A veteran professional writer, Pat has held editorial leadership roles in communication and e-commerce departments at Fortune 500 firms.  He has led development of website marketing content, electronic newsletters, executive communication, eBooks, trade magazine articles, and interactive training. He also is the ghostwriter of seven published books.

For more information, visit Pat and Pete’s author page at https://anothervanishingact.wordpress.com. Another Vanishing Act is available on Kindle or as a mass market paperback at: http://www.amazon.com/Another-Vanishing-Act-A-Novel/dp/1503383067/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

 

 

 

A Look Inside the Craft of Humor and Satire Writing

Laughter

By Anne Wainscott-Sargent

Georgia writers Jameson Gregg and Roy Richardson share three things in common: they love language, they love Mark Twain and they love to make people laugh.

I recently sat down with these two talented wordsmiths over lunch to talk about how they go about the craft of humor writing. And in the next week, I will be featuring excerpts of their writing here on The Writing Well.

Jameson Gregg

Jameson Gregg

Jameson, a North Georgia attorney of twenty years, left the law profession to write full time a few years ago. He recently celebrated the launch of his debut comic novel, Luck Be a Chicken, a tale of a redneck southern family trapped in generational poverty and facing a gut-wrenching crisis of how to raise money for their baby daughter’s operation.

Roy Richardson

Roy Richardson

Roy, a lifelong Georgian, has spent three decades as a writer/artist for Marvel/DC/Darkhorse Comics. He collaborated with his wife, June Brigman, inking, lettering and coloring the Brenda Starr comic strip for 15 years. Roy continues to juggle his freelance art assignments with his writing, a constant challenge.

Currently, he is compiling a series of short stories, titled, Hillbillies Prefer Blondes, which in addition to seeking a publishing home, he intends to record as an audio book. His writing is inspired by his own life —coming-of-age in Georgia in the 70s. I’ve gotten to know Roy through our writers’ group, and I can tell you that his readings are always a comedic highlight of our group’s gathering.

Check out our conversation below:

Q. How would you describe your unique writing voice? What inspired it?

Roy: I read a column by Stephen King recently where he stated his belief that voice is the single most important factor in keeping a reader engaged. I agree, and I always try to use voice in a way that will make the reader feel that I am telling a story just to them. As for describing my voice, it’s more of an instinctual thing rather than an intellectual process. I’m afraid if I analyze it too much, I won’t be able to do it anymore…

Jameson: I would define my voice as the ability to a) recognize the potential for humor in a situation, b) add to, expand, and embellish with imagination, c) write it with clarity. What inspired it? I think the desire to deliver humor, writing or otherwise, is either in one’s DNA or it’s not. Every child I’ve known loves humor. I think as we grow, that interest in humor becomes less important as other serious and complicated issues cloud our lives. Every adult I know also likes humor and likes to laugh, but few have the inclination to pursue it as a living. That’s where the DNA comes in. Personally, my humor DNA comes from my (now deceased) mother and grandmother. They would both go to great lengths for a practical joke.
Q. What things do you draw upon to bring humor to your writing?

Roy: I find that stating the obvious in the most obtuse and pseudointellectual manner possible is usually funny. And if that doesn’t work, then I try the exact opposite approach, presenting the obscure as though it should be completely obvious to all. Also, having my characters stress out and bluntly spill some of the really stupid things most people secretly believe is usually good for a laugh.

Jameson: It’s important to be alert and on the lookout for it because it’s all around us and usually unintentional. Sometimes it’s putting two ideas together. For instance, when Dahlonega was hosting the latest Big Foot Conference, I saw a huge dude in Walmart and it resulted in the attached Sasquatch article. Another time, I was at the local farmers market and noticed a couple of old-timers hanging out in the shade. I wondered what they talk about, so instead of continuing to wonder, I sat down and made up what I thought they may be talking about. It appeared in a column I periodically write for the Dahlonega (Ga) Nugget.

Q. What writers and works inspire you?

LuckBeaChickenJameson: Picaresque novels. Ever heard the term? I hadn’t until after I wrote one. When fellow Georgia author George Weinstein wrote a blurb for my novel, Luck Be A Chicken, he called it a picaresque novel, the first I ever heard the term or the genre. How about that – write a book in a sub-genre without even realizing the existence of the genre! Examples of this type of writing include Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, who is kind of my hero. Also, anything by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson or Richard Brautigan. As for living authors, I read Tim Dorsey and Bob Morris. Carl Hiaasen is the king now.

I like Mark Twain’s tall tales. His work inspired me to write American History 101, attached, published this year in Stonepile Writers Anthology III, by the University Press of North Georgia.

Roy: Though I’m writing fiction rather than memoir, Mary Karr and Rick Bragg, as great Southern writers, have both informed my stuff. I also think that Michael Chabon writes some beautiful sentences. There’s some Twain, Poe and Harlan Ellison in the mix as well. What I get from Twain is to write about something absurd in an extremely serious and intellectual sort of way – the way he uses language, sentences and phrases like a puffed-up college professor.

Q. What would be your top piece of advice to other writers looking to inject humor into their writing?

Jameson: I think the most effective way is to write situational humor – where you get your characters into a situation that is funny – like we all do sometimes.

Roy: What I do is use language – taking an absurd situation but talking about it in a very serious analytical way, which makes it even more funny. I have a lot of dialogue and try to simulate how people talk – using accents without laying it on too thick – “daaang, little boy.” I’m working with a friend to record some of my stuff. I’m a little bit of a ham with southern accents.

Jameson: I try to capture the vernacular of my southern redneck characters in my novel. But you have to be careful – if you go too far it can make it unreadable. You have to hit a balance. One of my favorite nuances of the southern vernacular is the double negative: “I ain’t done nothing.”

Roy: It’s very hard to interject humor into something – I never liked the concept of comedy relief, which was something that John Ford would do in his films when all of a sudden the characters would stop and decide to have a fun fist fight. Comic relief, unless it’s done really well, takes you out of the story. It has to grow more organically with the characters – you have to set it up.
Q. In closing, can you share some favorite sayings, quotes, or words of wisdom?

MarkTwain“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
– Mark Twain

“I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”
– Winston Churchill

“What does it take to be a writer? – An indifference to money and a willingness to take risks.”

“Re: twisted people – it’s the cracked ones that let the light in.”

“Last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.” – T.S. Eliot

“Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.” – Oscar Wilde

Paraphrase from the movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild: If I ever get too old to drink beer and catch fish, put me in the boat and set me on fire so they can’t plug me into the wall.

 

 

 

Meet Jennifer McQuiston: CDC Scientist-turned NYT-Bestselling Historical Romance Author

JenniferMcQuistPhotoAtlanta has its share of talented writers, especially in the romance genre, as noted by the number of Georgia Romance Writers chapter members who have received the coveted Maggie Awards that frequently lead to successful publishing careers with major houses.

In 2011, Jennifer McQuiston earned her first Maggie in the unpublished category. Within two years, she would be a New York Times bestselling romance novelist with Avon nominated for the 2013 RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for best First Historical Romance for her novel, What Happens in Scotland

MoMM FinalI recently caught up with Jennifer at the book signing for her third novel, Moonlight on My Mind.  A mother and veterinarian by training, Jennifer has managed to balance her new literary career with motherhood and demanding work as an infectious disease scientist at CDC.  I  literally “inhaled” two of her three Victorian era novels, including her second novel, Summer is for Lovers, in a matter of a few weeks, and can’t wait for her next series.  The vitality and irreverence of her heroines are unforgettable, as are the circumstances they find themselves in.  The Writing Well is proud to showcase Jennifer and her writing journey below.

Q. How did a veterinarian and CDC scientist become a historical romance novelist? You don’t normally associate the two types of professions together.

Jennifer: When I sat down to write my first book, it evolved as sort of a “see if I can” experiment, and what emerged was a romance set in a historical setting. (It sucked, by the way. In case you were wondering.)
But the why of it is more difficult to explain. Although I had dabbled a bit in flash fiction and short stories with a contemporary feel, my first attempt to write a book was unapologetically a historical romance. Looking back, I think it is because the rhythm of it felt most natural to me. I had always loved to read historical romance, and in fact, it was the process of discovering amazing historical romance authors like Madeline Hunter that made me first want to try my hand at writing anything.
With respect to the seemingly incongruous nature of my professions, I can only point to a scientist’s great love of research as a natural fit for the research required to craft believable historical fiction. And as for the romance? I spend my days writing the most tedious scientific articles imaginable… I would even welcome the opportunity to write limericks as an escape!

There one was a highly trained vet
Who never practiced on a pet
She worked as a fed
And was very well read
Happy endings were always a sure bet.

Q. Your heroines in at least your last two books are all independent, spirited women who often are misunderstood by the society and the men that they eventually love. What do you hope readers “get” about these strong characters who defy stereotypes or limited views of what they can accomplish?

Jennifer:  So many historical romance authors take heat for writing stories with romance at its core—as though that is something incompatible with a strong, modern woman! Rubbish, I say. I am an unapologetic feminist, and have never felt that my gender was something I needed to “overcome”, either professionally or emotionally. It was refreshing to arrive in veterinary school waaaaay back in 1993 and realize that 80% of my class was female, and that all of us were going to wrestle pigs and palpate cattle. And it is refreshing now to meet fellow romance authors and realize that 90% of them are more extreme feminists than I am.
History is full of examples of women who challenged feminine stereotypes, from Joan of Arc to Florence Nightingale. While they may not be “typical” women, they were real, and by studying and sometimes emulating them, I have been able to create romance heroines that are firmly anchored in their era, but that contemporary readers of historical romance can root for.

Modern notions of feminism do create enormous conflict in the Victorian era. For example, if I make my heroine a swimmer (as I did in Summer is for Lovers), in an era where a woman could only enjoy the ocean in archaic and frankly terrifying bathing machines, I have beautiful, instant conflict for my story.

But conflict is a good thing in fiction, so it works out well for me.

Q. I’ve heard from other novelists that “voice” is often the hardest to master but is one of the most critical attributes of strong storytelling. Do you agree? How would you describe your narrative voice?

Jennifer: Voice is something that belongs uniquely to each author, and I have to say, it didn’t sync into place for me until my second attempt to write a book. (I wrote 5 before I finally got published, if you would like to count along). Workshops and conferences help you sort out form and function, and genre fiction can have certain elements that must be there that you can learn and execute as a matter of course (i.e., the requisite happy ending for Romance).
But nothing can teach an author their voice. You have to discover it, not learn it, and there is no way to do it but time, luck, and repetition.
It is funny, but I am not sure I CAN describe my narrative voice. I know I can point out specific differences from the rhythm of my writing versus other writers. I favor certain combinations of rhetorical devices, and love rich word choices (I LOVE words. Sometimes my critique partners have to call me down). I also believe my voice captures my strong sense of humor, and reviewers and readers often say my voice is witty, snarky, and irreverent at times.
It figures…my sarcasm got me into oh-so-much trouble in high school, but now it is at least earning me a bit of a paycheck.
Q. You mentioned at your book signing that your favorite novel was your first – can you explain why?

How do I explain What Happens in Scotland, and describe what it whathappensscotlandecoverhas done for me and my family?

1) It was the FIFTH book I had written, and all the other had gotten “No’s”, so I was beginning to wonder if I was going to be able to “do” this thing.

2) The plot for the book hit me like a thunderbolt (I was turning 40 and planning a party with close friends in Vegas). I was watching the Hangover one night and thought, “Wow. There are certain elements of this that would totally make an original and fun historical romance.” The idea was so high-concept and I was so excited to write it, it poured out of me in only 3 months (no, that isn’t normal. Who do you think I am???)

3) It immediately felt different to me. Better than anything else I had written. Editors who had roundly rejected me for past book submissions thought so too, and it sold at auction a week after going out. So in many ways, it was a total fairy tale for me. And with the advance from that sale, I was able to buy my kids a freaking pony. Enough said.

4) Even though it was a polarizing book (reviewers either loved it or hated it), it generated a lot of buzz, and I can now claim “NYT Bestseller” on my list of accomplishments.
So yeah… totally my favorite book. Later books are almost certainly better written. And I enjoy the process of plotting new books a lot. But you never forget your first love…

Q. Do you have a favorite time period and geography to place your characters? If so, what makes that period and/or place so compelling to you?

Jennifer: My preferred time period to write about (and read about) is definitely the Victorian era. I find it so much more fascinating than the narrowly viewed Regency period. From 1840-1890, the world was changing in a head-spinning way. Railways replaced coaches, new money moved in, Americans went abroad, and medicine and science were growing by leaps and bounds (spurred by discoveries like anesthesia, the mode of transmission of cholera, and eventually germ theory). So much more interesting than waltzing!
To date, my stories have been British-set, but I do like to move them around. What Happens in Scotland is based in the Scottish Highlands. Summer is for Lovers is set in the Victorian seaside resort of Brighton, and Moonlight on My Mind is based largely in the Yorkshire countryside. My new series is heading to London (see question #6 below).

I also have a simmering idea for a west-Africa set missionary story based in the mid-Victorian era, but we’ll see if I ever get to write that!

Q. How do you approach period research to ensure your characters’ world is authentic? Any research tips for other writers with a bent toward historical settings?

Jennifer: Simply because it fascinated me, I had done a good deal of reading and background research on the early Victorian era even before I tried to write my first book. Historical settings can be hard, and if you are a perfectionist, be warned: worrying TOO much about the details can sometimes derail the story. For what I write (historical romance), the developing love story needs to be the actual heart of the book. For me, the key is to go into detail about things I DO know well (chamber pots, horses, historical methods of birth control), and not dwell on things that could trip me up (such as when door knobs were officially invented…I have very differing accounts from very different sources, and have no idea which to believe!)
My biggest tip is, whenever possible, read primary sources. I have read a lot of medical texts from the 1850’s, and I also have a huge, room-sized map of London from 1851 that I use to place me in that city for my current works in progress. And given that photography was invented in the Victorian era, I LOVE looking at old photographs.

Q. Congrats on getting another three-book deal from Avon – any hints on what you have planned next in terms of story lines?

Jennifer:  Thank you so much! I am terribly fortunate to have been given these opportunities, and I am excited to write a new series, tentatively known as “The Seduction Diaries”. The series follows two sisters and a brother as they navigate London Society on their own terms.
I am nearly finished with book #1 in the series, which is called “Diary of an Accidental Wallflower”, and it has some echoes of “Mean Girls” in it. Briefly, the reigning “It” girl in London sprains her ankle on the eve of the biggest ball of the year and is relegated to the (gasp!) wallflower line, where she eventually discovers there is more to life than dancing, and more to falling in love than dukes.
Q. Who are your favorite writers? Where do you go online for writing “inspiration”?

Jennifer: There are so many amazing authors, and when I’m not actively writing, I am still a voracious reader. Historical authors on my auto-buy list include Meredith Duran, Joanna Bourne, Julia Quinn, Sarah MacLean, Julie Anne Long, Cecilia Grant, Courtney Milan (do you want me to keep going? Because I totally can…) My critique partners are also fantastic writers…shouts out to Romily Bernard, Tracy Brogan, Kimberly Kincaid, Sally Kilpatrick, and Alyssa Alexander!

For even more local-to-Atlanta inspiration, my favorite writers all gather at a Norcross hotel once a month for Georgia Romance Writers. I always leave their meetings feeling energized and ready to tackle the whole industry!

Dashing DuchessesOnline writing inspiration… I love reading Smart Bitches/Trashy Books (even if they gave What Happens in Scotland a hell of a snarky review). I blog with a group of fantastic historical authors called the Dashing Duchesses, and every one of those ladies is an inspiration. And of course, there is nothing more inspiring than connecting with readers and other authors.I love seeing folks on Facebook (www.facebook.com/jennifermcquistonauthor) and Twitter (@jenmcqwrites).

Nine Novel-writing Tips from Thriller Writer Jeffrey Small

JeffreySmall_JerichoDeception_BookJacketI enjoyed meeting thriller novelist and history lover Jeffrey Small when he spoke to the Atlanta Writers Club earlier this fall.

His first novel, the best-selling thriller, THE BREATH OF GOD, won the Nautilus Book Award Gold Medal for Best Fiction and was hailed as “a thought-provoking masterpiece” by RT Book Reviews and “a fast-paced adventure” by Kirkus.

His newest novel, THE JERICHO DECEPTION, explores how a secret CIA mind-control operation in the Egyptian desert threatens to start a modern-day Holy War.  Bestselling author Douglas Preston calls it  “a ripping good novel,” while Steve Berry describes it as a “gritty thriller.”

The Jericho Deception asks a powerful question, “What if you controlled the power to see God?”

What I like about this Yale and Harvard Law School grad is his tenacious focus on research — everything from visiting place, to interviewing people, to doing significant background reading.

Jericho Deception came from an idea inspired by Wired Magazine – about a neural scientist in god-helmet225Canada who developed what he called the God helmet – that induced mystical experiences. How could that be used in a negative way? I used that real technology in my novel. Then it’s a matter of weaving research in where it’s integral. You have to be sneaky – have your characters using technology  / research it just flows with the story. You don’t want it to be a research dump.

Below, Jeffrey shares nine tips he’s learned on the road to achieving his literary dream.

#1 The second book is easier.

“It took me six years to write and get published the first time. After many heart-breaking rejections from both agents and publishers (including landing a big NY agent who couldn’t sell the book to a major publisher as he’d expected), mind-numbing rewrites, and endless waiting for responses, I finally got a publishing deal from a small press excited about my book.While writing JERICHO went more smoothly because I avoided many of the rookie mistakes of the first book, I still spent three years (working part-time) researching, outlining, writing, and rewriting. And did I mention rewriting? The easiest part of writing a novel is coming up with a cool idea for a story. The hardest part is finishing the first draft.”
#2 Your editor is your best friend.
For both of my novels, I used professional editors, or as they are sometimes called, book doctors. These women provided insight and discipline to my writing that went far beyond what I was able to do on my own, and I come with three Ivy League degrees! In both of my books, I cut, added, and altered characters, scenes, and chapters—dramatic changes I wouldn’t have had the stomach to make without the tough advice from my editors.The key for me was finding someone who had worked at a big publishing house.”
#3 Conflict is key.
“Readers keep turning pages because they want to know what is going to happen next to your characters. Conflict doesn’t have to be physical or mortal; it can be psychological or romantic. Conflict can occur between characters or internally within a character. Whenever a part of your story seems to slow down (probably somewhere in the middle), examine each scene and see where you can add conflict. How are your protagonist’s goals being thwarted? Put up obstacles. Have characters say one thing, but think something else. Try to begin each chapter with a question that draws in the reader. End each one with a mini-cliffhanger that forces the reader to continue to the next chapter. When it comes to conflict, the more the better.”
#4 Story and character rule over theme and message.
“Because both of my novels revolve around philosophical themes and touch on issues of spirituality and religion, I struggled with this advice in my early drafts. Some tough advice I received early on was “if you want to educate people, write non-fiction.” That axiom doesn’t preclude fiction from being heavy with theme, symbolism, and meaning—most great fiction is—but the story and characters must be even more important. People read fiction to be entertained. Your characters must drive the story, bringing the themes along with them organically. The danger with violating this rule is that the writing can verge on pedantic and preachy, which will quickly turn off the reader.”
#5 Details matter.
Do your research! Readers are willing to suspend belief (put faith?) in a novel when the author treats the non-fictional parts of the story with a journalistic care for accuracy. Then, the truly fictional parts of your story will seem much more plausible. Being in the place lets you use all five of your senses — What does it smell like? What are the sounds? Adding this layer of detail lends a greater degree of realism to the writing.  Ask yourself, ‘what are the crucial details?’  I try to make all the details realistic … even when writing fiction.”
#6 Delete your adverbs.
This may seem picky, but it is an easy way to make your writing more powerful. Highlight all your adverbs and get rid of most of them. Usually an adverb is telling you your verb isn’t strong enough. Doing this can make your writing much more direct.”
#7 Limit your PO to one character per chapter/section.
Beginning writers often struggle with POV, and this struggle can make for confusing and disjointed reading. While there are many variations of types of POV a writer may use, I think that it is simpler for new authors to stick with either a limited 3rd person view or a first person view. I write in 3rd person limited point of view.”
#8  Spend as much time marketing as writing.
“A lot of writers today don’t realize the amount of time you  need to spend marketing your book. I’ve got 10k Facebook fans for my first book.  it’s hard to rise above the noise today – self publishing – 100,000 books come out each year. Become a subject matter expert of what you’re writing about; speak to groups in those areas of interest.”
#9 – Keep writing!
“Writing is a craft – it definitely gets bettor the more we do it. it’s something I do because I”m passionate about it. I do it because I have to – it’s that creative juice in my brain that needs to be exercised.  The best advice I was ever given was from a woman who went to high school with me – a New York Times-bestselling YA author named Lauren Myracle. I spoke to Lauren when I was midway through rejections for The Breath of God and she said, ‘Giving up is not an option.'”

About Jeffrey Small

JeffreySmallJeffrey is a summa cum laude graduate of Yale University and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School. He holds a Masters in the Study of Religions from Oxford University. Jeffrey has also studied yoga in India, practiced meditation in Bhutan, explored the ancient temples of Egypt, and journeyed throughout the Holy Land. He is a thought-provoking columnist for the Huffington Post and also blogs at www.JeffreySmall.com.

An acclaimed speaker, Jeffrey has taught public speaking at Harvard, and lectured to thousands on religion and spirituality in the 21st century.

When not pursuing his passion for writing, Jeffrey is the founder and CEO of an Atlanta-based real estate investment company, MDH Partners. Among his eclectic hobbies, he is also a former U.S. champion amateur ballroom dancer with his wife, Alison. For more information, please visit www.JeffreySmall.com.

 

K.M. Weiland & the Three Most Common Story-structure Pitfalls

K.M. WeilandWhy do some stories rivet us from the opening line, while others fall flat after the first few chapters?

If you ask K.M. Weiland, it has a lot  to do with the story’s structure.

K.M. is an award-winning blogger and author of Amazon bestsellers, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story. 

I discovered K.M. after reading her Civil War short story, “One More Ride in the Rain,” set in the waning days of the Civil War about four Confederate cavalrymen taking refuge in a widow’s shack. I’ve since bought her book on story structure, finding it an easy read and valuable resource for understanding and avoiding the pitfalls of story structure.

I asked K.M. what prompted her to tackle this kind of self-help book for authors: “It revolutionized my own writing process. It excites me too much not to share it,” she says.

I’m looking forward to her next book from Writer’s Digest Books, Jane Eyre: The Classic Annotated for Readers and Writers, the first in a series with annotations geared specifically toward writers.

Below, she opens up about story structure, including three of the most common pitfalls, and an example of story structure done right.

     Structuring Your NovelQ. How important is story structure to a novel?

Proper structure is vital in creating powerful and memorable fiction. Story structure is instinctual to most people. It’s embedded deep in the human psyche. It’s certainly not an arbitrary set of guidelines, and it’s also not something exclusive to our era. We find the classic three-act structure across centuries and continents.

That being so, we have to ask ourselves, Why? The answer, of course, is that structure creates stories that not only balance the rise and fall of action, but also time the important turning points, so that they have the best chance of impacting and resonating with readers.

What writer doesn’t want to do that? A conscious understanding of structure allows us to understanding the theory behind story, which then allows us to discover why certain stories work and others don’t—and how to make sure our stories land in the former group.

Q.    Q. What are key pitfalls of story structure—and what can writers do to avoid/correct those pitfalls?

a.      Starting too late/too early.

Beginnings are always going to be one of the toughest areas in fiction, simply because there is so much we have to get right in them. One of the most important things we have to get right is the timing. Beginnings need to begin as close to the action as possible in order to cut any potentially boring or extraneous info. But they also have to begin early enough to give readers time to get to know the characters before the action really heats up.

 

b.      Mistaking the inciting event for the key event, or vice versa.

Most writers are familiar with the “inciting event” as being the moment that kicks off the story. But we don’t hear as much about the “key event,” and this can end up creating a lot of confusion. The inciting event starts the story’s action (e.g., war is declared), but the key event is what involves the protagonist in that action (e.g., he joins the Army). Up until the key event, he could conceivably continue his daily life, unaffected, without ever having to enter the melee of the story.

 c.       Skipping the Midpoint.

Writers often struggle with the “sagging middle” of their stories. More often than not, this is the result of an MIA or weak Midpoint. The Midpoint, which (surprise!) occurs smack in the middle of story is a dramatic event—sometimes even more dramatic than the First Major Plot Point at the 25% mark. The Midpoint marks an end to the characters’ reaction phase in the first half of the book and spurs him to start taking control and taking action against the antagonistic force. As long as your Midpoint is present and accounted for, you’re not likely to struggle with a saggy Second Act.

   

Q. Q. What is the most memorable story you’ve ever encountered that really got structure right?

If you enjoy a book or movie, you can pretty much bet it was properly structured. In fact, it’s difficult to find any improperly structured stories that have made it as far as Hollywood or traditional publishing. Movies are particularly great for studying structure, since we can almost always time the plot points down to the minute. Star_Wars_Logo.svg

One of my favorite examples is George Lucas’s original Star Wars

1.      First Act: In which characters, settings and stakes are introduced to the reader (e.g., in Star Wars: A New Hope, viewers meet the droids, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Luke, and Obi-Wan and learn what is at stake for the characters on a personal level and the galaxy as a whole).

2.      First Major Plot Point: In which the First Act ends with a definitive event that forces the character to react (the murders of Luke’s aunt and uncle lead Luke to his decision to go with Obi-Wan to Alderaan)

3.      First Half of the Second Act: In which the character reacts to his new plight and tries to regain his bearings (Obi-Wan hires a ship to Alderaan, and Luke starts learning about the Force).

4.      Second Major Plot Point or Midpoint: In which another definitive event occurs, this time forcing the character out of his period of reactions and into action (the Death Star captures the Millennium Falcon).

5.      Second Half of the Second Act: In which the characters begin to come into their own power and take definitive action against the antagonistic force (Obi-Wan goes off on his own to shut down the tractor beam, while Luke, Han, and Chewie decide to rescue Princess Leia).

6.      Third Major Plot Point: In which the character’s actions seemingly lead him to a place of defeat (Obi-Wan dies and the Empire places a tracking beacon aboard the escaping Falcon).

7.      Third Act: In which the character must rally for a final assault against the antagonistic force (Luke and the Rebels use R2-D2’s schematics of the Death Star to plan a last-ditch assault).

8.      Climax: In which the conflict between protagonist and antagonistic force reaches a deciding moment (Luke blows up the Death Star).

9.      Resolution: In which the loose ends are tied up, and the characters react to the events of the climax (Princess Leia passes out medals).

 ____________

K.M. Weiland enjoys hearing from other writers. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and G+. Her author website is: http://www.kmweiland.com/.


 

 

Ariel Lawhon on Premise, Plot and Pacing

Part III highlighting the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference

ArielLawhonToday, The Writing Well concludes its three-part recap of the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference with author Ariel Lawhon, co-founder of the online book club, She Reads, whose debut novel, The Wife, The Maid and the Mistress, will be published in January.

The mother of four admits that she is addicted to research (“For me, it’s a way to procrastinate,”) she teased the audience. Her highly engaging talk covered the three Ps of writing: premise, plot and pacing.

How do you define premise? It’s “your story described in one line.”

Why is it so important, you may ask?

Ariel noted that it’s the seed from which your story grows, explaining that creating a strong premise line helps you focus on your story and also to quickly explain it to anyone, whether it be a journalist, an agent or a publisher.

“Writing a premise line forces you to think about the most important parts of your story — what is the story about? What does she do? What happens in the end?  You can’t really move forward unless you know this. You know your story innately so you’re not wandering.”

TheWife,TheMaid,The MistressAriel shared her own premise line for The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress: “My story is about three women who know the truth about a judge and they choose not to tell,” said Ariel.

Set in New York City, her novel reconstructs one of America’s most famous unsolved mysteries – the disappearance of Justice Joseph Crater in 1930 – as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best. On a sultry summer night, as rumors circulated about the judge’s involvement in wide-scale political corruption, Judge Crater stepped into a cab and vanished without a trace.

Ariel offered a simple formula for creating a strong Premise line:   Character + Action = Outcome, and then shared three contemporary examples:

         The Godfather: “The youngest son of a Mafia family (character) takes revenge on men who shot his father (action) and becomes the new Godfather (outcome).”

         Harry Potter: “A boy discovers he has magical powers and attends a school for magicians.

         The Help: “Three women write a book about domestic servitude and expose a system of racism.”

JohnTrubyAnatomyofStoryAriel then addressed plot – defined as what happens in your book.  A good novel, she noted, must include seven structural components. These key steps of story structure, from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, are:

  1. Weakness – hero cannot be perfect; he must be hurting someone at the beginning of the book
  2. Desire – what your hero wants
  3. Opponent – the person who keeps your hero from reaching his goal
  4. Plan – how the hero goes about achieving his goal
  5. Battle – the final conflict between hero and opponent
  6. Self Revelation – when the hero sees his moral weakness
  7. New Equilibrium – when the hero returns to normal – but changed – his desire achieved

 A story’s plot creates a lot of different questions. Pacing, advised Ariel, is the rate in which you answer those questions for your reader. A great guidepost for pacing? Begin your scenes with a bang and end them with a cliffhanger to keep your readers off guard, Ariel said.

“The key to pacing is that as soon as you answer one question, you need to ask another so the story doesn’t sag and the reader is motivated to keep reading,” she added. All the small questions must be connected to the big question.

“It’s all about withholding – parceling out information in small pieces,” she said.

game-of-thrones-season-4During the Q&A, she fielded questions such as “Is there such a thing as too much conflict?” She cited George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, Game of Thrones as an example of a story with a lot of conflict among a huge cast of characters.

“Conflict has to be planned. It’s important when writing to be very specific with who is in conflict and why,” she concluded.

  

 

Marybeth Whalen on Voice – ‘The Game Changer’ in Novel Writing

Part II of III highlighting the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference

Panel_DecaturBookFestival

Author panelists (L to R) Kimberly Brock, Marybeth Whalen and Ariel Lawhon tackled different aspects of writing craft — setting, voice and plot — during the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference.

In today’s recap of the 2013 Decatur Book Festival Writers Conference, The Writing Well introduces North Carolina novelist Marybeth Whalen, a wife and proud mother of six, whose penned four Southern novels, her latest, The Wishing Tree, published this past spring. Three of her last four novels are set in Sunset Beach, N.C.

“I try to tell a love story all centered around one object unifying two people, usually against all odds,” says Marybeth, who admits that “voice” – the unique way you tell a story — comes to her naturally.

WishingTreecover

“Every one of us has a unique voice. Mine is a little more direct. I’m not real flowery in my voice. One of the best things friends tell me when they read my book is ‘I could hear you. I knew this by you. It comes out.’”

During her presentation, Marybeth shared with conference attendees highlights of a recent blog post she penned celebrating her son turning 21.

“When I look at him, I don’t see the man he is now; I see that little boy in the car seat we brought home. I see that little seven-year-old boy who couldn’t stop shaking the night he came back from Washington D.C. saying, ‘Mom, I can’t explain it, but that city is in my blood!’  I see that 15-and-a-half year old who could not wait to get those car keys… get in our car and drive away. I also see my 21-year-old son, who next week will ship off to the Navy. I see the whole arc of who he is.”

She explains that as writers, we bring all of who we are to our characters – tapping our experiences and feelings from childhood through adulthood.

“When I write an older character, I imagine the woman I’ll…be.  All those voices are already within each and every one of us; it’s just trusting that on the page.”

She quoted Storyfixer and writing coach Larry Brooks, who once said, “Novels don’t sell because of writing voice, but they do get rejected because of writing voice. What sells are great stories told well.”

“Voice is the game changer. Yes, plot and pacing are important; setting is so important. But, I think it’s that authentic writing voice that wraps its fingers around our heart and makes us feel we know this character.”

She cited the character of Lily in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees as a wonderful example of voice done well.  “I loved her, I rooted for her, I cheered for her. It wasn’t just the circumstances of the story, it was her heart, her view of the world – that’s voice.”

Voice Writing Tips

marybeth_whalenMarybeth offered these tips to strengthen voice we all can employ in our writing:

  • Listen to the voices around you. Notice accents, inflections, vocal tics, mannerisms when they talk. You don’t want characters to just be talking; they should be doing something as they talk. 
  • Write from the deepest truth and your deepest emotion. Ask yourself, what is most shameful thing – the one thing you least want to write about or share? We’d feel so exposed.  You need to write about that thing that keeps you up at night – say that thing you are so afraid to say. That’s what will make your voice authentic.
  • Write what you love. Knowledge can be learned; passion can’t be.  Think about the emotions that flow from that passion – and tap into that. 
  • When reading other authors note the different voices that come through in the writing. Why does that voice work? You can learn a lot from reading others. Or, if it didn’t work for you, why?
  • Don’t overwrite or attempt tricks to baffle the reader.  Say it plainly.
  • Picture your reader. Don’t write as if they’re strangers. Write as if you’re writing to a friend. I write to other moms / women who are thinking about dinner, normal stuff. You have to have a real audience in mind.
  • Love the voice you have been given. Recognize that your voice is individual, authentic, original. Writing details in the most natural way you can – it’s the details you notice. Let those details come through. 
  • Don’t try to copy other writers’ voices.  Your writing should sound like no one else could have written it. The way you talk, your life experiences, whether you married or had children, all of that should be part of your voice.

Indispensable Tool: James Scott Bell’s Voice Journal

Conflict and SuspenseFor homework, Marybeth provided attendees with a “Voice Journal” handout courtesy of James Scott Bell’s Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict and Suspense, calling it one of most effective writing tools she’s ever used.

This free-form, stream-of-consciousness journal is all written in a character’s voice, from writing prompts you introduce. She advised us to write at least five to ten minutes without stopping, letting the character speak for him or herself. In the early stages of your novel, the voice journal will help you “hear” the characters talk in a way that is unique to them. During writing, you may stop and ask what a character is thinking or feeling about the story. This deepens the emotions in the character and helps solidify and intensify conflict. 

You should have voice journals for all your major characters and when your stuck, start a new voice journal for the point-of-view character and ask him or her some questions about what’s going on. Ask your character:

         What do you want?

         Why do you want it?

         Who or what stands in your way?

         What will happen if you don’t get what you want?

         What will happen if you do?

         What is your greatest strength?

         What is your greatest weakness?

         What do you fear the most?

         What makes you angry?

         Who did you admire growing up?

         Who did you fear the most?

         How do you handle frustration?

         Are you an extrovert or an introvert, pessimist or optimist?

         How easy is it for you to trust people?

         Do you tend to keep things or get rid of them?

         Do you have any secrets?

         Do you like taking risks?

         What is your favorite food?

         What stands in the way of your happiness right now?

         If you could change one thing about your past, what would it be?

         What would you like to be remembered for?

         How do you think other people see you?

  How do you write in your own unique voice? What techniques help you bring that authenticity out in your characters? Share your experiences here, and be sure to check out Marybeth’s author blog.