- Your reader makes decisions, so you should be humble.
- Your reader is easily distracted and slow to act, so your writing should be concise, direct, and strategic.
- Your reader distrusts you, so your writing should be logical, error-free, and upbeat.
- Your reader is human, so you should share stories.
- Your reader wants you to be human, so you should show that you care.
Today, The Writing Well talks with Atlanta mystery-thriller writer Lee Gimenez on his techniques for character development tied to the release of his twelfth novel, The Media Murders.
The story opens with a prominent New York Times reporter dying under suspicious circumstances right before breaking an explosive story. Then a well-known TV reporter commits suicide. Suspecting foul play, the FBI’s John Ryan and Erin Welch investigate. As they probe the mysterious deaths, they uncover a shocking truth: Reporters are being murdered to suppress the news. More shocking is who they suspect is responsible for the killings.
As a writer who regularly reports on technology trends, I found the premise compelling. And, having read earlier books by Lee, featuring Ryan and Welch, I knew I would be in for a treat. Lee has a knack for creating believable characters and suspenseful storylines. The Media Murders didn’t disappoint on both counts. Below, Lee shares his process for creating well-rounded, imperfect heroes and antiheroes who readers can identify with – a component that any good story must have.
Q. Your newest thriller, The Media Murders, takes readers into the world of ethics and journalism, and the growing corruption of the field by outside interests, in this case, political forces. How true-to-life is this trend, and how did it inform your writing?
Lee: Like all of my previous eleven novels, The Media Murders, is primarily an action/mystery thriller. It’s ideal for someone who enjoys a past-paced, plot-driven novel, witty and engaging characters, and a strong sense of mystery and suspense. But it’s also more than that, as it tackles a serious issue that faces society today. As you mentioned, the plot revolves around the news media and journalism, and the key element is the murder of several reporters. Although the murder aspect of the reporters is fictional in the U.S. (at least as far as I could discover), it has happened in Europe and Russia in order to suppress the news.
The background of The Media Murders is based on research I did prior to writing the book. From this research I learned that the news industry in the U.S. has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. The news industry now reports news that is intended to not offend advertisers or government institutions. This trend has accelerated to the point that much news ‘reporting’ now is actually editorials from one side of the political spectrum or another. The ‘free press’ and the First Amendment to the Constitution are under assault in the U.S., something much of the public doesn’t seem to be aware of. I hope that by talking about this topic in my book, more people will become aware of this alarming trend.
Q. The Media Murders features several favorite characters, including Erin Welch, J.T. Ryan and Rachel West. In fact, you actually grace this book cover with a male character, J.T. Ryan, a first for you. Your characters are always well-defined and multi-dimensional. How do you create memorable characters that people can identify with and want to root for?
Lee: I’ve found several effective methods of creating memorable characters. One such method is to realize that characters cannot be perfect. This is especially true in your main characters, both the protagonists and the antagonists. For example, your protagonist cannot just have good qualities. He or she has to have flaws, either physical or emotional, and better yet, a little bit of each. Remember that perfect people don’t exist. We all have flaws. In order to make your hero/heroine believable, you have to include things about the person that are not necessarily positive. For example, one of the main characters in The Media Murders is John (J.T.) Ryan, who works for the FBI. He is one of the heroes in the book, and he has many good qualities in his personality. But he’s also impulsive and hot-headed at times, which puts him and the people around him in some dangerous situations.
Another way to create multi-dimensional characters is to give them an engaging backstory and to include humor and wit in the dialogue. My novels all have serious, life-and-death action thriller plots, but I always try to lighten the mood by bringing in humorous and witty dialogue. It makes the novel more readable, entertaining and believable.
Characters also have to have conflict in their lives, whether it relates to their love life, their family, their jobs, etc. Without conflict there’s no tension, and you have a boring novel. I try to include tension, suspense, and mystery, on every page.
Q. How much effort do you put into creating equally interesting villains? What kind of balance do writers need to strike when it comes to crafting characters on both sides of the good-bad spectrum?
Lee: Just as important as your main good guys/gals, the villains are, I’ve found, equally important. I don’t want to give away the plot of The Media Murders, so I won’t discuss the villains in this book, except to say they are extremely dangerous and deadly. So I’ll use one of my previous thrillers, The Washington Ultimatum, to illustrate. The main villain in this book, Angel Stone (she’s the beautiful woman featured on the book’s cover) is the world’s deadliest terrorist. The key to making this book successful was portraying her as evil as you would expect, but also to show that she had a human side that at times made her compassionate. Another good example of how this can be successfully done is shown in the Godfather movies, where the mobsters were killers, but they were also family men that went to church, and occasionally did good deeds.
Q. Engaging the audience through social media channels like Twitter is important for any author. How have you done this using your characters? What has been the feedback?
Lee: I find that engaging your reader audience is very important to the success of your book. I currently have over 50,000 followers on Twitter, and I’ve found this social media site a good way to get my message out and engage readers of my books. I’m also on Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads, and Pinterest. The key to social media, I found, is to realize that it’s a great way to have a conversation with your readers. And what makes social media unique is that you can have a conversation with people not just in this country, but also with people around the world.
Q. What is coming up next for you in terms of book projects? Do you plan to continue with some of the character themes you introduced in The Media Murders? Will there be more interaction between J.T. and Rachel, for example?
Lee: I really enjoy writing about the main characters I’ve created in the last several novels. They include the FBI’s John (J.T.) Ryan and Erin Welch, and my other series character, Rachel West, who is a CIA operative. Four of my novels, including The Media Murders, Skyflash, Killing West, and The Washington Ultimatum, are based on these characters. In my next novel I plan on including them as well. I’m currently working on the main plot for my next book, which I estimate would be published in the later part of 2017. Stay tuned for more details!
About the Author
Lee Gimenez is the award-winning author of 12 novels, including his highly-acclaimed J.T. Ryan series. His latest thriller is THE MEDIA MURDERS. Several of his books were Featured Novels of the International Thriller Writers Association, among them SKYFLASH, KILLING WEST, and THE WASHINGTON ULTIMATUM. Lee was nominated for the Georgia Author of the Year Award and was a Finalist in the prestigious Terry Kay Prize for Fiction.
Lee’s books are available at Amazon and many other bookstores in the U.S. and Internationally. For more information, please visit his website at: www.LeeGimenez.com. Lee lives with his wife in the Atlanta, Georgia area.
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 with 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.
A 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
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.
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?
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.
That’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.
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.
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
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).
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
I 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.”
The 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 the six impersonators of “Six” in the audience and Commander Adama (played by the incomparable Edward James Olmos)?
A few of my favorite costumes:
Writing Wisdom from Dragon*Con’s Wordsmiths:
#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
#2 “If 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
#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
#“7 “How 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
#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
#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
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
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?
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 young 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 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 Cherished. The Kindle version of The Kommandant’s Girl is presently on sale for just $1.99 on Amazon.
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 Canada 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
Jeffrey 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.
Kimberly Brock, author of The River Witch (2012, Bellebooks/Bell Bridge Books) and recipient of the Georgia Author of the Year Award 2013, was one of three talented Southern authors who spoke on honing the craft of novel writing at the Decatur Book Festival’s Writers Conference earlier this month.
The panel I attended also featured fellow Southern authors, Ariel Lawhon and Marybeth Whalen. All three of these talented storytellers shared what they consider their strengths as writers: Kimberly spoke about setting, Ariel tackled plot and Marybeth explored voice. I’m excited to share highlights of each of their presentations beginning today with Kimberly’s insights on setting.
Before I do, however, I want to applaud what these women are doing to “pay it forward” to other novelists. Marybeth and Ariel co-founded the “She Reads Book Club” in September 2009 to share the books they loved with the largest audience possible. Kimberly recently has lent her support by managing the club’s blog network. Her debut novel was chosen for the She Reads’ June 2012 Book Club selection.
Set against the backdrop of the southern Appalachian foothills and the Georgia Sea Islands, The River Witch tells the story of Roslyn Byrne, a professional ballerina devastated in body and spirit following an accident, who seeks refuge for the summer on Manny’s Island in Georgia. While she hungers for solitude, Roslyn finds so much more on this mystical island, including the key to healing. The Huffington Post’s film critic Jackie Cooper provides an excellent book synopsis, but he also noted how well this Georgia native crafted setting in her story.
“Brock does a masterful job of giving a sense of moist habitation to the location of the story. You can almost feel the wet grass underfoot and hear the movement of the alligators as they stalk their prey,” he wrote.
Cooper isn’t alone in his praise. “This is one of those books written so well you actually hear and smell and feel everything as though you’re actually there,” writes Amazon reviewer Gin Bryant.
To Kimberly, setting is all about the details. “It’s setting that builds your story world… and your reader’s perception of your character,” she told a room full of writers in Decatur earlier this month.
Kimberly began her remarks first by sharing her own storytelling antics as a child. In an attempt to get attention, she told her impressionable classmates how her “great-great granddaddy – a Cherokee Indian — haunted her and other pale skins.”
In describing her ancestor’s presence in the hilly pine woods abutting her elementary school’s playground, Kimberly soon had the children terrified that the ghost of her great-great grandfather was after them.
“I had them all going. The kids wouldn’t sleep. If it rained there was terror. I had to apologize to the whole school and tell them that the ghost of my great-great granddaddy wasn’t after them,” recalls Kimberly, who used this memory to underscore the importance of creating setting in storytelling.
Setting, she says, is “the sly old man behind the curtain,” to borrow an inference from “The Wizard of Oz.”
“It’s the part of your story that creates the world where your characters live. Not only that, setting fills your story world and it moves your story along.”
Kimberly adds that your characters are forced to deal with the setting you place them in — whether they know it or not.
“One character is going to interact with that setting completely different than another character.”
She believes a strength of Southern literature is its focus on setting – “Southern stories are full of poetry and attachment to the land. We are affected by where we are in a place and time,” she explains.
Details, she adds, are the hardest things to get right in a story.
“Details are what take the most time to write, because for every detail we include, we have to discard all the hundreds of choices we could have made to include one telling snippet that reveals the most.”
Ready to create settings that your readers will lose themselves in? Here are four techniques Kimberly uses, and you should, too:
1. Reveal setting through action – Let your description unfold as a character moves through the scene. Consider which details your character would notice immediately, and which might register more slowly. Let your character encounter those details interactively. Use action verbs to set the scene. “Walking through” a description breaks the details into bite-sized nuggets, and scatters those nuggets throughout the scene so that the reader never feels overwhelmed or bored.
2. Reveal setting through a character’s level of experience – What your character knows will directly influence what she sees. Different characters will perceive the same surroundings in very different ways, based on their familiarity (or lack thereof) with the setting.
3. Reveal setting through the emotions of your character – What we see is profoundly influenced by what we feel. The same should be true for our characters. Filtering a scene through a character’s feelings can profoundly influence what the reader “sees.”
4. Reveal setting through the senses –
– Visual – we make decisions and take action based on what we see.
– Emotions, however, are often affected by what we hear (music, the sound of a person’s voice, the whistle of a train, tone of voice).
– Smell evokes memories (baking, perfume, new-car leather, the odor of wet dog).
– Touch evokes a sensory response.
– As in real life, “taste” images should be used sparingly and appropriately.
What techniques work for you when writing setting? Share them here, and reach out to Kimberly on her author page, where you can check out her book trailer or download a book club discussion guide for The River Witch.
Regardless of whether you are writing a blog or a novel, you need to find your unique “voice.”
In fact, putting your personality into your prose is the “secret” to getting published, writes legendary writer’s writer Les Egerton (his post on how to create a remarkable writing voice is a must-read on Kristen Lamb’s Blog).
Les knows something about memorable storytelling; he’s the author of Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go and Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality into Your Writing. He advises you to write simply and clearly, and to watch your word choices.
“If you can identify more than five percent of the language you used as being essentially foreign to your normal usage, then you’re not employing your own personality on the page,” Les states.
Les isn’t the only expert advocating that writers find their authentic voice. Joy Tanksley, a middle school English teacher and a life coach, who blogs about living a joy-filled life, last December shared four steps to finding your ideal writing voice. The post, which appeared on Copyblogger, drew 188 comments. Joy advises that you:
- get into the flow
- write like you talk
- forget conventions (at least at first)
- write what you know
I think Les and Joy are onto something. My expert blog interview tomorrow is with someone who MOST DEFINITELY gets the concept. Describing himself as a “reformed journalist” and a “scribbler of speeches,” Guy Bergstrom is the witty wordsmith behind The Red Pen of Doom.
This blog takes conventional wisdom about writing and turns it on its head –making it “a place for writers of all types — novelists and journalists, speechwriters and screenwriters — to strip away the window dressing and theories, to get down to the essential guts of all good writing. Which really is editing and structure.”
Boldly going where few editors — and even fewer bloggers — have publicly gone before, Guy takes a red pen to the opening page of Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel, The Fountainhead. One of the few places left untouched by his editing marks is the book’s short opening sentence:
Howard Roark laughed.
I approve of this. It asks a narrative question – who is this guy, and why did he laugh? – and I like short sentences anyway. writes Guy.
Blog visitors soon learn that Bergstrom hates semi-colons and that his blog began randomly after his used car ad to Craigslist was yanked after two weeks. He promises to never be boring.
Guy’s been true to his words (check out this funny video on blogging – typical fare on The Red Pen of Doom). In the process, Guy has drawn a solid following, including Canadian poet David Weedmark, who calls Guy’s blog “informative, funny, blunt and quirky [and a] must if you really give a damn about language and communication.”
Check out my post tomorrow when Guy shares five sure-fire ways to build a blog following.
Kathryn’s Sci-fi romance adventure, Pandora’s Genes, the subject of this post, was named “Best New Science Fiction” by Romantic Times in 1986 when it was published. Lance has written numerous articles and short stories, and has taught dozens of writing classes on all levels. Lance, with her husband and four cats, lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she leads bird and reptile walks in a nature park.
Sean with Congressman Tom Price.