Posts Tagged ‘The Writing Craft’

I’ve always loved to read.

If I’m waiting somewhere and I’ve forgotten a book, I’ve been known to read the back of a match stick booklet, or every single item on the menu. In high school, college and early in my working life, I’d often read a book a day. I was voracious, devouring authors across almost every genre—romance, suspense, mystery, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction—I’d read it all. There was always a book in my hand and two or three in my backpack. When I started to drive they were tucked in the glove box, tossed in the back of the car, or sitting on the passenger seat beside me.

Back then, I couldn’t imagine a time when reading would get lost the shuffle of a busy life. I couldn’t imagine a life without reading.

This obsession with reading is what compelled me to write, to dwell in my own imagination, and bring my own worlds and characters to life. But as I sank deeper and deeper into writing, I stopped reading.
It happened so slowly I didn’t even notice.

I was working full time, with an hour commute each way. Plus, I was writing on the side. Writing brings with it a host of other time consuming activities, like critiquing, and beta reading. So I guess you could say I was reading, sometimes I even enjoyed what I read. But reading a critique partner’s work, chapter by chapter, isn’t the same as getting lost in a book. It doesn’t fill your creative well. Or at least it didn’t fill mine.

Since there are only so many hours in a day, and those hours were spent working, commuting, sleeping, writing and critiquing—reading evaporated. I literally didn’t have time to read.

I didn’t notice the affect at first. I was riding high on the drug of writing my first book and involved in several critique groups both online and local. When I realized it had been months since I’d read a book for pure enjoyment, I shrugged the realization aside. Serious writing, required serious sacrifices, I told myself. I couldn’t afford to cut back on the time I spent writing and critiquing, not if I wanted to get published. The reading, however, wasn’t necessary. I could do without the reading.

I was so naïve.

The months turned into a year. And then two and then three. I went from reading a book a day, to reading maybe a book a year. As that third year without reading bled into a fourth, my creativity dulled. Everything I read from critique partners sounded vacant, and dull. Everything I wrote felt stagnant and boring. All those exciting premises churning through my mind, tarnished. Like wisps of smoke on the wind, they blew away. All the sudden I was left with no interest and no energy for writing. There were no images, no stories, and no characters in my mind. No words demanding their time on the page. My mind felt empty. My creativity gone.

I struggled for months with this strange apathy, forcing myself to write even though the enthusiasm was gone, forcing myself to critique even though everything thing about every story irritated me. Because my critique partners’ work couldn’t pierce this mental fatigue, I didn’t think other fiction could either. Instead I turned to television and dulled my mind even further.

The only reason I started reading again was because I lost electricity one day. With no television, I had no way to occupy myself, so I picked up a book for the first time in years. The book was Vanished by T. J. McGregor and it revitalized me. I got lost in that book—lost in an imaginary world, with imaginary people. And when that ride was over, I reached for another book and took another imaginary ride. And then another. What followed was a reading glut like I hadn’t enjoyed in years. Not since I started writing.

And wonder of wonders my creativity surged. Suddenly new ideas and new characters started spinning through my mind. The words that streamed from my fingers onto the computer screen were vibrant and thrilling. My critique partners’ chapters were brilliant.

My creative well was full again.

Since then I’ve made time for reading—allowing myself a major reading glut every couple of months. And with each reading glut my creativity has soared. It was the Black Dagger Brotherhood that inspired Forged in Fire, my paranormal romantic suspense. Without that reading glut, without that inspiration, I would never have written Forged, which means I wouldn’t have been able to quit my day job in order to write full time.

So it’s fitting that my first resolution this year is to read more. At least a book a week. I have a brand new Nook Tablet and I’m filling it with books: Christy Reece’s Last Chance series, the fourth book in Maya Bank’s KGI series, and the first two books in Elisabeth Naughton’s Eternal Guardians. Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Linda Howard, Lara Adrian, Caris Roane, they are all either downloaded into my Nook or about to be downloaded.

What do you have on your Kindle or Nook or sitting on your bedside table?

About the book:

Beth Brown doesn’t believe in premonitions until she dreams a sexy stranger is gunned down during the brutal hijacking of a commercial airliner. When events in her dream start coming true, she heads to the flight’s departure gate. To her shock, she recognizes the man she’d watched die the night before.

Lieutenant Commander Zane Winters comes from a bloodline of elite warriors with psychic abilities. When Zane and two of his platoon buddies arrive at Sea-Tac Airport, he has a vision of his teammates’ corpses. Then she arrives—a leggy blonde who sets off a different kind of alarm.

As Beth teams up with Zane, they discover the hijacking is the first step in a secret cartel’s deadly global agenda and that key personnel within the FBI are compromised. To survive the forces mobilizing against them, Beth will need to open herself to a psychic connection with the sexy SEAL who claims to be her soul mate.

Forged In Fire is a smoking hot adventure with an irresistible alpha hero. Danger, action, suspense, and a steamy romance make a story that’s impossible to put down!”
–Patti O’Shea, National Bestselling Author of Through a Crimson Veil

About the author:

Trish McCallan has been writing for as long as she can remember. In grade school she wrote children’s stories, illustrating them with crayons and binding the sheets together with pencil-punched holes and red yarn. She used to sell these masterpieces at her lemonade stand for a nickel a book. Surprisingly, people actually bought them. Like, all of them. Every night she would have to write a new batch for her basket.

As she got older her interest changed to boys and horses. The focus of her literary masterpieces followed this shift. Her first full length novel was written in seventh grade and featured a girl, a horse and a boy. At the end of the book the teenage heroine rode off into the sunset . . . with the horse.

These days she sticks to romantic suspense with hot alpha heroes and roller-coaster plots. Since she is a fan of all things bizarre, paranormal elements always seem to find a way into her fiction. Her current release, Forged in Fire, was the result of a Black Dagger Brotherhood reading binge, a cold, a bottle of NyQuil and a vivid dream.

Visit her Website.

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When I say ‘chick lit’, what do you think about? Fluffy novels? Air-head protagonists? Bags, shoes and designer clothes? Don’t be ashamed to admit it. That’s what I used to think when I read my first one a few years ago. Sure, there will always be poorly written chick lit novels with mediocre characterization and non-existent plot or storylines, but this happens in all genres. The truth is, chick lit has come a long way and now more than ever, publishers are looking for authors who can deliver not only a fun and sassy story but also a smart one as well. Just like in all genres, publishers of chick lit fiction want intelligent writing, a powerful premise, a likable protagonist with a strong, distinct voice readers can sympathize with, a villainess readers will love to hate, and a compelling plot.

Chick lit novels are extremely popular at the moment, mainly because of big hits like Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopoholic and Alisa Valdes Rodriguez’s The Dirty Girls Social Club. Many aspiring authors think that writing chick lit may be the surest road to fame and six figure advances. Because chick lit novels are often fun, light reads, new writers may have the wrong assumption that they’re easy to write, but this isn’t the case. Just like any work of fiction, a good chick lit story takes talent and skill to write.

I recently had the chance to read two books on how to write chick lit: See Jane Write: A Girl’s Guide to Writing Chick Lit, by bestselling authors Sarah Mlynowski, and Will Write For Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel, by Cathy Yardley. Both are great resources, not only on how to write in this genre, but on learning everything there is to know about this type of fiction: its history, new trends, and tips and tools for breaking into the market.

But let’s take a closer look at each book.

In See Jane Write: A Girl’s Guide to Writing Chick Lit, the authors begin by explaining what chick lit is all about and exploring the reasons why you may want to write the chick lit novel. Then they go into the craft itself: creating the protagonists and secondary characters, the elements of style, the basics of plotting, deciding on a point of view, structure and pacing, and finally, the importance of revising. They also give submission, agent and publishing advice, including a short list of editors who handle chick lit. In the appendix, as a reading list, the authors give examples of popular chick lit authors and their books.

The font is pink and sometimes green, against sometimes pink or green background. The pages are thicker than the regular paperback, which made the pages stiffer and a bit less comfortable to turn. In spite of this, I found the book entertaining and informative, with the same humorous flavor of a chick lit novel, and the authors give helpful advice.

Will Write For Shoes is another great resource for the aspiring chick lit author.

This book goes into more detail explaining the genre and its history, and offers a ‘blue print’ for writing the novel. It also discusses in detail the various trends and subcategories within the genre. Like the title above, it tries to teach the craft with examples. Topics include: plot, structure, point of view, characters, setting, voice. It also stresses the importance of revision. Unlike the book above, it not only includes a good list of editors but also a list of agents who specialize in chick lit. There’s a sample query and synopsis in the appendix, something writers will find extremely useful.

This is a fun and comprehensive manual that should be in the permanent shelf of every new chick lit writer.

If you can get both, great. If you have to choose between the two, I’d recommend the second one, Will Write For Shoes. It’s more complete and the resources are better. I also liked that it’s presented in a more simple, uncluttered manner.

You too can share your story with the world because publishing your own book just got easier.

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Today on The Dark Phantom I have a wonderful guest post by Mark H. Phillips, author of The Resqueth Revolution. To promote his science fiction book, Phillips is touring the blogosphere this March. This post pertains to the second part of his article. To read the first part, visit Write First, Clean Later.

How to Write Exciting Action Scenes – Part 2 of 2

Today we continue our discussion with the second rule of action writing: do your research and make sure the details are convincing. Do you know the difference between a roundhouse and a spinning back fist? What’s the difference between a side snap kick and a hook kick? How does one use a kubotan or a manriki-charlottegusari? How much different does the recoil feel between a 9 mm Luger and a Smith & Weston .500 caliber revolver? While personal experience is the best research, you can absorb a wealth of convincing detail from the Internet, gun and sports magazines, watching action films, reading action novels, and watching real mayhem such as martial arts, boxing, and even pro wrestling.

This brings us to our third and last rule. For those of you out there who have been spared the awful curse of testosterone poisoning or for those of you who have fully absorbed the civilizing influences of culture, writing action scenes may mean deliberately and meticulously pondering feelings that you will find repellent in the extreme. It seems, to many of us, both counterintuitive and morally wrong that our audience desperately craves to know what it’s like to slam the edge of your foot hard enough into someone’s kneecap for it to snap. Why would anyone, except a psychopath, revel in the opponent’s screams as his shattered leg folds beneath him? The third rule of action writing, at least writing about violent confrontations, is that you must open yourself to bloodlust. I doubt anyone can write consistently arousing pornography who feels no arousal when they write. I doubt anyone can write consistently convincing villains unless they have opened themselves, at least temporarily, to truly evil thoughts and feelings. You can compose jazz without feeling much of anything, but only those who have felt deep, dark anguish and pain have ever written quality blues. I doubt anyone can write consistently exciting action scenes involving violent confrontation without feeling bloodlust.

Without opening yourself to your inner bloodlust you still may be able to write convincing chase scenes or fights against natural disasters, but writing about violence, including violent action, requires being open to bloodlust. This is true, even if your first person protagonist explicitly rejects the bloodlust within her, feeling appalled at the carnage she reluctantly must mete out. You, the writer, had to dwell on the carnage and your reader will lap up the details of it with relish. Many of you cannot watch boxing, nor understand the avid fascination of its fans. But if you were going to hire someone to write about a boxing match, wouldn’t you hire an expert who was both literate and an avid fan?

While writing action, remember the three rules. Imagine you are witnessing the action in real life or a movie and try to capture every necessary detail. Slow everything down so your reader has the time to become caught up in those details, while making your prose as “ripped” ands lean as possible. Do your research so the details are either accurate or convincing. And with violent confrontational action, access your suppressed bloodlust. If you can’t become excited by the action you are writing, I doubt your reader will either. Learn to like action. Come over to the Dark Side.

Here is an action scene from the next entry in the Eva Baum detective series, The Golden Key, written with my brilliant co-author and lovely wife Charlotte Phillips. I’ve actually considerably condensed and simplified it, eliminating about half the protagonists/antagonists. In the finished work, this fight with a prefight setup and postfight wrap up constitutes an entire chapter.

I dragged myself off the pavement and stood. I staggered as the asphalt below me seemed to roll and tilt wildly. The boy who had thrown the heavy chunk of curb laughed as he emerged from the hedge on my right. His voice was a cruel growl. “For such a little bitch she can take a hit.”

The two who had faced me originally congratulated him on his throw. They were the St. Thomas jocks I had fingered for the police as the gay basher source of the threats to Chaps. A wave of nausea and pain washed through me leaving me shivering in a cold sweat. I knew the night breeze was cool, but it felt warm on my skin. I spit out a mouthful of blood along with some fragments of teeth.

The largest boy, Unibrow, slapped his baseball bat against the palm of his other hand while his comrades moved to surround me. Despite my nausea I slowly turned to watch the others. Slackjaw held an ax handle like a samurai sword. Good posture; perhaps some martial arts training? He looked the most nervous of the bunch, glancing constantly to Unibrow for moral support and directions. Mouthbreather, the one who had clocked me with the chunk of curb now had a crowbar in each meaty hand and was nearly skipping in place, rolling his shoulders, trying to stay loose but also jacked up on something.

I centered myself, controlling my breath, lowering my body into a horse stance. I flicked the catch on the ‘jewelry’ wrapped around my right forearm. The weighted ball fell into my palm as the 10-foot steel chain of the manriki-gusari unwound. I made sure that its inner slipknot loop was tight around my wrist. With my left hand I pulled the kubotan free from the string around my neck. Grasped firmly in my left fist, its fat blunt steel spike projected below the base of my fist and the two thinner spikes projected between my clenched fingers.

By the time they charged I had entered the zone Sensei was always talking about. No time for thought or fear—just act. I threw the ball sidearm, letting the chain unwind, practically sensing Unibrow’s nose pulling the ball towards it. I heard bone shatter and saw blood fly as Unibrow staggered back. The bat fell to the pavement as his hands clawed at his face.

I jerked the chain back and caught the ball high in my left hand, rising instinctively into a cat stance. With the loops of chain pulled taught between my hands I blocked Slackjaw’s downward slash, diverting his rush to my right and throwing him off balance. When he extended his right leg forward to keep himself from falling I slammed the edge of my right foot into the side of his knee. There was a wet popping as his knee folded sideways, followed by a hideous high-pitched scream. The scream cut off instantly as I whipped the weight and loops of chain against the side of his head.

I rolled behind Slackjaw’s crumpled form, then slid left, trying to put Slackjaw between me and Mouthbreather. Mouthbreather chose to leap over his fallen comrade. He stretched himself into a half-moon, feet trailing, with both crowbars far over and behind his head, pelvis and belly thrust forward. I planted my right foot and threw my whole body towards him. My left foot locked into place under my forward knee in a classic deep front stance. I channeled all my forward momentum into my left arm, twisting it as it lashed out. The thin spikes of the kubotan tore through the flesh just above where Mouthbreather’s left leg met his torso. Steel met pelvic bone just as my arm locked into place. I was unmovable. I felt the pelvic bone shatter as he folded around my fist. The crowbars went flying to clatter down the street. His left knee just brushed my left cheek. He fell mewling onto Slackjaw.

Unibrow had found his bat and returned to the fray. I backed him up with short-loop figure eights, and then pirouetted to extend the last loop low. The chain wrapped his feet together. I jerked hard and sent him to the pavement. The back of his head bounced off the pavement with a dull thump.

Do you have any questions about writing action scenes that have not been answered? Use the comments link below to ask and I’ll do my best to provide an answer.


BIO: Mark H. Phillips grew up in central Illinois reading the classics—especially Greek mythology, James Bond novels and lots and lots of Batman comics. He is a graduate of both the University of Illinois mark(BA—Philosophy) and Northwestern University (MA—Philosophy). Mark currently lives in Houston with his wife, Charlotte. He teaches pre-calculus and political philosophy at Bellaire High School. Mark has been a member of Houston’s The Final Twist Writers for two years.

Mark, who has been writing stories and political tracts for as long as he can remember, submitted his first stories to a magazine editor when he was twelve years old. That editor’s kind and encouraging response fueled the fire that was already burning.

Previous publications include the mystery novel Hacksaw, First in the Eva Baum Detective Series and an Eva Baum short story in A Death in Texas (an anthology). Mark is currently working on the second Eva Baum novel and a short story for an anthology titled A Box of Texas Chocolates.


The Resqueth Revolution blog tour continues tomorrow at Book Talk Corner (www.booktalkcorner.today.com) where Mayra Calvini interviews Mark. If you enjoyed the article on writing action scenes, you may want to check out Mark’s article on violence in fiction and film on March 24 at Brain Cells and Bubble Wrap (http://vivianzabel.blogspot.com/). See Char’s Book Reviews and Writing News (http://charsbookreviews.blogspot.com/) blog for the full tour schedule and information on how you can win an autographed copy of The Resqueth Revloution.

Followers of the 2009 Resqueth Revolution blog tour will have two opportunities to win.
1) Everyone who leaves a comment on the tour will receive one drawing entry per comment per blog site. Two entries will be drawn at random and the winners will receive their very own, signed copy of The Resqueth Revolution.
2) Everyone who answers all quiz questions correctly will be enterred into a drawing for the grand prize – a signed copy of The Resqueth Revolution, a Resqueth pen, magnet and calendar, and a signed copy of Hacksaw, First in the Eva Baum Detective Series.

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Horror Factor is an online source for horror authors who want to hone their craft. The site offers not only monthly tips, a writer's forum, and articles on the horror writing craft, but also on publishing, promotion and marketing horror fiction. Here to talk about the site is co-founder Lee Masterson. Read on to find out all the goodies this site offers and how to subscribe to their monthly, highly informative newsletter.  

Thanks for this interview, Lee. Tell us a bit about Horror Factor. When and how did it get started?

Horror Factor was created in 2002 – about 3 years after we first launched the original Fiction Factor (http://www.fictionfactor.com). The original site contains hundreds of articles on general fiction writing advice. It occurred to us that the information a horror writer might need would be more specific that just learning grammar or sentence structure or finding a publisher. Horror writing tips are also going to be vastly different to writing tips for a children's writer or a fantasy writer. So we sat down and had a huge brainstorming session and came up with the various sub-sites that are aimed specifically at writers in each of the individual genres we chose.

As I'm a huge horror fan, I decided to build Horror Factor before the other sub-sites. It's remained my favorite to this day!

What does your site offer authors?

The websites as a whole were specifically created to help all writers to improve, hone and strengthen writing skills. There are entire sections in the Fiction Factor article archives on getting published, finding editors or agents, submitting or formatting work and much more.

Horror Factor specifically caters to horror or dark fiction writers. We try hard to find quality horror-specific tips and advice that could potentially help a writer to improve his or her craft or to find publication. It's surprisingly difficult to find enough quality work in this genre designed to assist newer writers to hone their craft. We're always on the look out for more ways we can help out horror writers.

What about promotional opportunities?

We would sincerely love to promote all authors on our site somewhere – but our web host wouldn't be happy! We already blow out their hosting and bandwidth capacities quite often with the heavy traffic such an enormous site produces.

What we can offer is a bit of promotion in the "Writer Announcements" section in the newsletter. If any writer at all has some writing news they'd like to shout out or perhaps get some free promotion for a book/story publication, then feel free to hop onto our forum. Post your 'woo hoo' into the Announcements section. Remember to leave a link where everyone can find you. I'll get that announcement into the email newsletter and we'll let the world know about it for you!

How may authors interested in a review by Horror Factor submit their books?

We receive hundreds of submissions for reviews and even more queries every year. We're currently so overstocked with reviews that we won't be opening for further submissions until mid-2009. We do post an announcement in the newsletter when we do open for submissions, but we've learned that we only need to open for one week a year to create a backlog that keeps us busy all year round.

Do you consider freelance articles and reviews? What about short stories?

Yes absolutely! We're always happy to receive freelance non-fiction articles that might help writers in some way. If you'd like to submit any writing-related article at all to Fiction Factor, Horror Factor or any of our other genre sites simply visit this page. Don't let the scary warning that says "we're closed to submissions" deter you – I'll always happily read a well-written query from any writer willing to email me.

We do prefer that articles are written and formatted in a similar style to the existing articles on the site. Feel free to take a look around some of our article archives to get a feel for what kind of things we like! If you see a gap in the information there, chances are we'd love to see an article covering that topic.

We don't accept fiction short stories but we do have plenty of short story market listings available. If you're looking for a published home for your short horror fiction, check out our market listings here. You're sure to find a publication suitable for your work.

Tell us about your newsletter, Fiction Factor, and how we can subscribe to it.

Fiction Factor was created in 1999 to cater for a complete lack of information for fiction writers (at that time). Our Managing Editor, Tina Morgan, and I noticed a growing need for information directed at helping writers to establish successful writing careers so we created the site. The first email newsletter was released in January 2000 and has just grown enormously to become the award-winning site we have now in the years since.

You can subscribe to our newsletter by visiting our group on Yahoo or you can send a blank email to fictionfactor-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

Our newsletter is free and each month we try to include at least three great articles pertinent to writers or writing. We also include market listings and occasionally book reviews and author interviews. All our content is dictated by what our subscribers want to read about or learn more about so we take particular notice of any email queries we receive and then take steps to source articles that cover this information.

Tina and I are both also very active on the forum (which has a dedicated Horror Writing section, by the way). Any questions that seem very popular or anything we feel could be great information for other writers immediately goes into the newsletter from here as well. You can find the forum here.

Do you think the horror fiction market has declined, reached a plateau, or is still climbing?

I think the horror market has gone a little stale in recent times but it doesn't seem to be declining in popularity. There seems to be an abundance of regurgitated vampire tales around right now, along with a gore-fest of slasher type stories.

It's a shame the supernatural thriller style of horror seems to be on the decline though. You know – the ones that make the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up and make you check whether you locked the doors at night. These are my personal favorites.

Having said all that, it is heartening to see so many diverse short horror markets still running strongly and actively seeking submissions. This would indicate that the genre as a whole is still very strong with a lot of readers out there.

Within the horror genre there are several subgenres. Which one do you think is more popular at the moment? What about in the past? What are your predictions for the future?

Horror seems to run in cycles. No matter what's popular now or what was popular yesterday, the themes will eventually make a resurgence somewhere in the future cycles. They might be updated, modernized or given a fresh face but they're still similar underlying themes.

We seem to be in a part of the cycle where there's a glut of slasher/gore-fest and vampire horror around right now. When there's a glut, readers tend to wander off in search of something different. Sales slump and publishers start sniffing around for something else to sell. This makes the market appear flat or stale.

Sooner or later a fresh new style or something completely different to the usual stuff we see will appear and spark reader's interests again. Sales will spike and publishers will rush to grab hold of any copycat styles they can find, which then causes a glut and the market goes stale again until another new writer emerges with something fresh and original to begin it all again.

The great thing about cycles is that you can often sense when the wheel has turned full circle and it's about to launch into a new phase. I think this is what's about to happen to the genre in the near future.

When you look at the history of horror fiction, which type of supernatural "creatures" have had the most success and notoriety under the public eye – witches, ghosts, zombies, monsters, or vampires?

Unfortunately I think vampires have received the most success and notoriety lately. Vampires have been romanticized in recent times almost to the point of being nauseating. That's a shame because there's massive scope within these supernatural beings to create really cool, scary scenarios. Let's hope someone creates some really scary vampires soon and bring them back to their former horror-glory.

What is the scariest book you've ever read?

The books that get the little hairs on the back of my neck tingling most are the ones that affect me in ways I least expect. A good example of what I mean is Stephen King's Pet Sematary. It's not really a scary book, but my black cat, Scruffy had me creeped out for a few days after reading it (actually, he still creeps me out when he stalks my hair in the middle of the night).

Another one that unexpectedly affected me was Richard Laymon's All Hallow's Eve. Again, it wasn't a scary book, per se, but when the creepy guy dressed in his last victim's clothes turned up on the old lady's doorstep to make her his next victim…. Let's just say I'd recently divorced from my husband when I read that book and was living alone at the time in a little cottage on a secluded road. I slept with the lights on that night (and a German Shepherd beside the bed for reassurance!)

Oh – and anything with spiders. I have a bit of a phobia-thing about spiders 😉

Which authors, in your opinion, will be remembered as the best horror writers of the 20th Century?

There are so many good horror writers around right now – Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, Robert McCammon, Richard Laymon – like I said, there's so many. I should add such favorites as Dean Koontz, John Saul, Peter Straub and Graham Masterton as well.

Being an Aussie, I also make an effort to follow some of our great Australian Horror Writers. I think some of these will make a huge splash in the international horror arena in the not-too-distant future. If you get a chance, I can recommend you look up Stephen Dedman and Jack Davis. Stephanie Gunn's short fiction is worth watching for too.

Thanks again for this interview!

It was my pleasure, Mayra. Thanks once again for inviting me! :)<

Interview by Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani is a multi-genre author and reviewer. Her paranormal books include Embraced by the Shadows (romantic horror/vampire) and Dark Lullaby (atmospheric horror). She is also the co-author of the nonfiction work, The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing.

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How do you actually begin a novel – by working out the plot, or starting with a character? And which is best?

The answer is probably pretty much what you expected: no one method is “best”. In fact, many authors have begun their first novel by working from a plot idea, then switched to starting with a character for their second. Here, we’ll look at the pros and cons of both methods.

Starting With Plot

FOR: You know where the story is going and what all characters have to do next. You don’t have to sit there wondering how on earth your character is going to get out of the pickle you’ve put him in – because you planned all that in Week 1. Even if you have to make some changes, you know your story well enough to compensate.

AGAINST: A highly structured plot can become sterile and flat. Characters are too ‘locked in’ and fail to excite the author, let alone the reader. Because ‘plot is all’, your characters never really come to life. They go through the motions – but you’re all too conscious that you’re a puppet master. Pinocchio ain’t got nuthin’ on YOUR wooden characters. Gloom, gloom.

Starting With A Character

FOR: You know your character so well that motivation is never an issue. The plot is never implausible. All action is driven by the character’s needs, wants and responses. Conflict works well because you know the secondary characters well too.

AGAINST: Your character never realizes his/her potential because the plot is too slight. The stakes aren’t high enough; the outcome is predictable; the storyline worn.

What To Do?

Either method can work – or either method can be a disaster. Start with whatever gets your creative juices flowing, then weave plot and character together as you write.

How to Weave Plot and Character

Not many aspiring novelists start a novel by sitting down at the computer with absolutely NO idea of where to start. (“Oh, I think I’ll write a novel today! Now let’s see… what can I write about?”)

Most writers have at least a vague sense of where they’re going. They may:

-have a vivid image of a character in mind
-be able to imagine a character in a certain situation that requires decisions and action
-have a general theme in mind
-have a definite beginning, middle and end planned
-have a vague idea based on a movie plot or an actor or a news item or a current affairs guest

… and so it goes on! Very, very few people start with a completely blank slate. So, given that you have either some idea of the plot, or some idea of the character, where do you go next?

3 Tips for Developing Plot Out of Character

a. What does your character DO?

You can build a plot from where your character is now, in his/her life or career. Some examples:

-If your character is a mother: what could threaten to turn her life upside down? What is her strongest drive? What does she want from life? What is important to her? What would make her risk everything she holds dear?

-If your character is a corporate high flyer: What is important to her? What could bring her down? Who might go down with her? What does she have to lose? How could you raise the stakes?

-If your character is a doctor: What might he see or do in the course of his work that could have an impact on his life? What kind of doctor is he? Who might be plotting against him? Who might he want to save, and how?

b. What is your character’s secret?

Does she have a secret life – e.g. teacher by day, psychic hotline contact by night? Does she have a secret baby in her past… or a secret lover?

Does he have a serious crime in his past that is about to catch up with him? What is it? Could it mean doing time? Was the character framed? Did he let someone else take the rap? Might someone be looking for revenge?

Does she have a secret yearning? Has she always wanted to be someone else or do something else? What happens if she shocks everyone by acting on her secret yearning?

c. Who does your character know?

Some examples:

An old school friend – once a ‘best friend’, now on a slippery slope in life – in trouble, and involving our lead character.

A workmate who asks the character to cover for him. A lie grows out of all proportion and leads to serious repercussions. The character is caught up by events and can’t stop them.

A corrupt politician or police officer who mistakenly sees the character as powerless and a good ‘fall guy’. What happens?

3 Tips for Developing Character Out of Plot

a. Choose a character with traits that are necessary for the kind of growth you need

If your plot requires a character who will develop ‘courage under fire’, and show great character growth – then choose that character carefully. Think about the *qualities* your character needs rather than worrying about looks. What particular skills/traits will he or she need to have?

b. Choose a character that will surprise the reader

If you have a screwball character in mind – or perhaps a mild-mannered desk jockey – think about how their lives are about to change, and how their reactions might surprise the reader. Perhaps link their actions to a secret in their past, a secret threat, or a secret yearning.

c. Choose a character with a fatal flaw

Your plot demands swift and decisive action. The stakes are high; many lives will be lost or a country/city faces ruin. You need a character with a fatal flaw so that near the climax of the story, all appears lost. What is that flaw? At what stage of the story will the revelation of this flaw have the most impact?

Which particular fatal flaw will work best with the kind of plot you’ve created? A gambling addiction? An inability to admit he’s wrong? A weakness for beautiful women?

These are just a few tips. A couple of hours brainstorming will give you pages of ideas and fend off the dreaded writer’s block.

Whether you start with a character or start with a plot, you need to have vivid, strong characters or all your hard work will be for nothing. I’ll leave you with a few words from New York literary agent Don Maass about the importance of strong characters (from his book Writing the Breakout Novel):

“What do folks remember most about a novel? I have asked this question many times, of all different kinds of people. Your answer is probably the same as that of most readers: the characters. Great characters are the key to great fiction. A high-octane plot is nothing without credible, larger-than-life, highly developed enactors to make it meaningful…. Hot plot devices may propel a protagonist into action, even danger, but how involving is that when the action taken is what anybody would do?

“Indeed, it is a common fault of beginning thriller writers to slam an Everyman, your average Joe, into the middle of something big and terrible. Such stories usually feel lackluster because the main character is lackluster. A plot is just a plot. It is the actions of a person that makes it memorable or not. Great characters rise to the challenge of great events.”

Marg McAlister has published magazine articles, short stories, books for children, ezines, promotional material, sales letters and web content. She has written 5 distance education courses on writing, and her online help for writers is popular all over the world. Sign up for her regular writers’ tipsheet at http://www.writing4success.com/

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Hundreds of books on writing are available on the market these days. I try to get my hands on any new writing book that comes out, even though most of them end up being repetitive in one way or the other. I was pleasantly surprised by Bessler's book because, while it touches on the same topics which other similar books touch upon, this one does it in more depth and detail. Definitely it's a 'heavier' book and a longer read than titles such as Writing Down the Bones. Furthermore, because of Bessler's more formal writing style, it is a harder book to read and one that would be better appreciated by nonfiction writers, especially by legal writers.

Writing for Life isn't a grammar book, though it stresses its importance and recommends titles on the subject. Using lots of interesting quotes from some of the great writers and offering helpful tips, the author meticulously discusses a long list of topics such as the importance of daily practice, perseverance, discipline, style, editing, polishing and revising, storytelling, and freewriting. He also writes about procrastination and writer's block–what it is and how to cure it. As I said, these are the same topics that pop out in any writing book, but the difference here is that Bessler goes much deeper and examines the issues in more detail. He's an attorney and it shows in the writing. I particularly enjoyed his insight into the elusive concept of 'style'. 

Writing for Life is a smart, insightful and sophisticated book. It is also well researched and would serve as a fine addition to any writer's reference bookshelf.


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