August 25, 2016

What Hooks You?

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Is it the characters? The plot? Unanswered questions? What kinds of things hook you and keep you reading? For me the characters are what keep me turning the pages. Some of the books I read have little plot, not much action, but I get attached to the character. Even in mysteries, I love knowing more about the primary detective or his/her side-kick. Martha Grimes created such an amazing detective with Richard Jury and his side-kick, Melrose Plant. Even though the plots were pretty formulaic, I read every book because I loved characters and how they interacted with one another.

Take this short quiz and see if you can nail that illusive thing that keeps you nailed to your book:

  1. Do you read ahead to see what is going to happen next. Even if it means skimming pages?
  2. Do you worry about the characters and what events will cause them trouble?
  3. Are you more interested in the main character’s life than the mystery at hand?
  4. Do you skim through the action in order to discover if the character will survive?
  5. Do you tire of reading about the main character’s problems and more interested in how the action will play out?

If you answered yes to questions 1 and 5, you tend to be a plot driven reader who gets hooked by the action and the mystery at hand. If you answered yes to numbers 2, 3, and 4, you are more character driven and tend to read even if the action is stale. If you have a mixture of answers, you read for both character and action. You could be hooked by either one, depending on the story.

So, how did you do? What hooks you?

Writers Helping Writers

bigstockphoto_African_And_Caucasian_Fingers__4307946Before I published my first novel, I contacted two previously published authors. One told me he never read another writer’s work. The other refused to help me in any way. I found these responses both disheartening and sad. Why is it writers refuse to help newbies? How are newbies ever going to break through without a helping hand?

I understand some reasoning behind the refusal. The seasoned writer doesn’t want to be inundated with manuscripts to read. And, of course there’s the worry or fear that someone might be accused of stealing someone else’s idea. That was actually expressed by one of the writers. But, it’s my contention that writers can help other writers and serve as mentors.

  • Do not ask a writer to speak on your behalf to their publisher or agent. If the writer wants to do that, they will volunteer doing so.
  • Do not ask a seasoned writer to read your entire manuscript. You could ask them to read a chapter and give you some feedback or to read your synopsis
  • Ask general questions regarding the publishing business. How did you find your agent? Is an agent necessary? What does your agent do for you?
  • Ask general submission questions. What do I send to the publisher? What format is commonly used? Do I send a query or do I send more?
  • Do ask about contests and conferences and ways to get your work noticed on the worldwide web. What contests should I enter? Is it worth it to pay a fee to enter a contest? How many people do I need to have a platform? How do I create a platform?
  • What about writer groups and Beta readers. Which ones do I join? How do I find Beta readers? What is your process of early reading and editing?
  • Ask them to tell you about their journey. How did they break into the business?
  • Ask how you can support the seasoned writer. If you have a platform, you can shout out the writer’s new book. Or, you could offer to read and review the helpful writer’s work.

Of course, I did all this when I approached the two writers mentioned earlier. Nonetheless, they turned their backs on me. This will happen. Recognize that some writers are not inclined to help others. Move on. Find another more helpful person.

I read a number of posts where writers share their experiences. The best ones I’ve found (besides mine!) is The Kill Zone–I read this one regularly and tweet it often. Several writers contribute. The other is Live Write Thrive. This one is more technical. But, again, writers share their experiences.

Maybe as time passes, more writers will help other writers. When they do, everyone benefits, particularly the readers.

What suggestions do you have to help writers be more forthcoming with newbies?

 

 

My Favorite Reading Quote

This is one of my favorite reading quotes. I’m sure there are a zillion more. Why not share yours?

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Tips for Coming Up with the Perfect Title

For some reason it’s not jumping off the page. But then again, now that I think about it, I’ve never had a book title jump off the page. I usually agonize over various versions before I settle on  that perfect title. Someone suggested I crowd source it and see what my network comes up with. That sounds fun. So, I’m going to give you some of the titles I’m toying with and see what you think.Share Your Story Flat Illustration

Meantime, here are some tips for coming up with the perfect title.

Nonfiction books have titles and subtitles. For example The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. Isn’t that a great title? But, if you’re writing a thriller, you’d better not use so many words. Most thrillers have one or two words. Cozy mysteries have soft titles like, Murder at the Bookstore or the Cupcake Killer.

What is the theme? My WIP theme is betrayal. But, I’ve toyed with that word and it really doesn’t capture the essence of the book. What is the inciting incident? What starts the book rolling? That might be a better place to look. Again, a lot depends on your genre. If I was writing a thriller, my title Betrayal would be perfect. But, a glance on Amazon tells me there are a bunch of books with that name.

When I was trying to think of a title for e-Murderer, I wrote, Internet, Murder, e-Mail, Death, Campus. After a bit more brainstorming, I landed on e-Murderer which together captured the theme and inciting incident. That was one lucky title idea!

Or, share your title ideas with your early readers. Often they will tell you if the title rings true for the book. Recently I read a book titled And After the Fire. I read the entire book waiting for the fire. It never happened. As a reader, I felt betrayed. We can’t title a book with words we happen to like or we feel are catchy. The title must reflect the story.

Short and crisp is the name of the game. Even the happiness book I referenced earlier uses few words that capture a lot of information. Okay so there are lots of words, but they are well-chosen. Here’s a great title, MJ LaBeff’s Mind Games. That title not only is short but it also captures the storyline perfectly.

If you’re writing a steamy romance, you must use words like love or attraction in your title. Wasn’t Fatal Attraction a great title? If you’re writing a mystery, you have to use words like, Murder, Death, Killing, Blood.

What tips do you have for coming up with a great title?

Here are the title ideas for my WIP:

The Case of the Missing Painting

A Painting to Die For

The Art of Murder

Murder and the Masterpiece

Take a look at this book trailer. Does the title capture the suspense?

Mediocre at best. My Review of And After the Fire

The story and the construction of the book left a lot to be desired.51YTnlOqbqL

The lexicon is extremely anti-Semitic and yet the cantata gets into the hands of one Jewish family after another. The premise of the story is good and the beginning definitely hooks the reader. From there it disappoints. The story flashes back from the present to the late 18th Century to the early 19th Century. The flashes help the reader understand where the cantata resides and who has it. Sara Levy, the main character in this time period is very interesting, compelling and kept me reading. The main character in the present, Suzanna Kesler, is less so, but not unlikable or unbelievable. The problems in this book lie in the story itself and the author’s continued redundancy.

When Suzanna discovers the lost cantata among her dead uncle’s possessions, she seeks out music experts to help her decide what to do with it. She is also interested in learning who the cantata belongs to. Are there decedents from the war who have a claim on the piece? This leads her in the path of a new love interest, Dan Erhardt. We learn that Suzanna had been raped and afterwards her husband left her. This experience made her cautious in any new love interest. Dan also suffered from the early death of his wife and was still grieving from that loss. These two events brought the two together. This particular storyline didn’t bother me and the author did a sensitive job of creating their union.

What I have to ask is why all the different points of view? I saw no reason to have these points of view chapters: Scott Schiffman, Frederick Fournier, Frank Mueller. It goes tiresome because these were minor characters. It cheapened the book. The story would have been told better in Suzanna’s view point with the point of view of Sara Levy in the past alternating. We didn’t even need Dan’s point of view. From a writer’s perspective, those different points of view is the easy way out. The depth of the story for the reader was lost.

Furthermore the book went on and on about the anti-semeticism of the past, present and possibly future. Mentioning it once or even twice would have sufficed, but we got it shoved in our faces without let up. Way over the top.

I did enjoy learning about Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn and their musical careers. I enjoyed learning more about Bach and the musical soirees that were conducted in the homes of the wealthy during the late 18th Century.

If you want to learn more about music history and are willing to skim the rest, this book is for you.

Tips to Deal with the Let-Down When Your Novel is Finished

Okay, so you might say, “I’m never finished.” I feel that way as well. It seems there’s always tweaking. But, once the novel is sent off, gone, out of your reach, how do you feel? Good? At a loss? Jumping up and down, celebrating? Tearful? bigstockphoto_Freedom_3207179

I recently finished the third installment in my mystery series. I sent it to my line editor. It’s no longer on my daily work plate. Gone. Out of my hair. I’m relieved to have it “finished.” At least to have gotten it this this far. But, now what? Do I start another project?

This is a question every writer faces. We struggle and work on a project for months, even years. Suddenly, one day there is no more to do with that particular work of art. Do we feel as if our child has left home?

My answer is yes, I do feel as if my child has left home. I feel a bit disjointed and not sure what to do with my time. So, here are some tips for dealing with the let-down between projects:

Tip #1: Enjoy the extra time you have. Allow yourself to free-think. Instead of always being in the minds of your characters (which is where you’ve been for the last several months), get in your own mind. You might be surprised at what you learn.

Tip #2: Don’t wait till the project ends before you think about what you are going to do next. Make a list of things you wish you had time to do while you’re working. The list might include: 1) Shop for a new refrigerator 2) Call my sister 3) Have lunch with my friend 4) Join a Book Club 5) Go to a movie.

Tip #3: Consult that list you made and begin working through it. Recognize that you’ll soon be into a new project which will consume your time and energy.

Tip #4: Do not immediately start a new project. Wait at least two weeks before you embark on the next novel. If you start too soon, you will not give yourself and your creative juices the time it needs to create. This tip reminds me of when I work crossword puzzles. I tend to struggle over them until I finally put it aside. When I go do something else, something totally unrelated, the answers fly at me like bees.

What about Product Placement?

Surprised businesswoman with wide opened eyes touching glasses.

That’s a no-no

Writers are told to make their fiction specific. Instead of writing a general statement like, he ate a hamburger, be more specific–he at a BigMac.

Readers do want to envision the place and what the characters are doing. If we are too general, it’s hard for readers to capture the image. We all know what McDonald’s looks like. We know what a CocaCola tastes like.

My editor is particularly nuts about naming products or places. In one novel, my character sang the words to a popular song. She had me remove the words, although I could keep the song title.  In another novel, she put TM under each mention of Diet Coke. Don’t the companies appreciate this free publicity?

My work-in-progress is full of products. It names places and things that I believe add color and dimension to the story. Okay, years from now there may not be a Hershey Bar, but by then, people won’t be reading my book. If they are, they’ll know it’s dated.

What are your thoughts? Won’t you help me out here?

 

The Woes of Writing that First Chapter

In the old days, that was the case. Back when Trollop and Jane Austen were writing, they had at least two chapters before readers gave up on them. Many of today’s literary writers have the luxury of several chapters before readers give up on them. But, most of us must capture our readers in the first sentence! There is so much that has to be done in that initial chapter. Action, yes. But also some explanation of action.

They want to know why, but they don’t want a lot of exposition. Geez!

Typewriter closeup shot, concept of Chapter one

Here’s the rub. When I’m writing my book, putting those words on paper for the first time, I don’t have a full idea of what the story is about. My creative process evolves as the story and the characters evolve. I may start out with a story idea but it could change completely before the final chapter is written. Usually I have a good idea of where the story is going once I’m about half-way through it. But, when I’m writing that first chapter, I’m as clueless as my readers.

That means I must go back and re-work that first chapter over and over to capture the essence of the story and to hook the reader. The work involved in doing that is almost more strenuous than writing the 80,000+ novel.

Here are some things your first chapter must do:

Opening Hook–That all-important first sentence that tantalizes your readers. The hook needs not only to create questions in the reader’s minds, but also give them an idea of who is talking. Who is telling this story?

Starting the story in the middle of something. No story starts at the very beginning. If we are in the middle of something, then the reader wonders what went before and what went after.

A clue about setting. Some excellent writers begin with setting. Most of us need to simply sprinkle a little locale information in the first few pages to let the reader know where they are and in what time period. If you’re writing in the 19 Century, you can’t wait until Chapter 2 for the readers to find this out.

An inciting incident. This is the event or incident that starts the story rolling. What happened (in the middle of wherever you are) that incites the story?

The main character’s intentions and goals and dreams. We can’t go into a lot of backstory in the beginning. So, when we talk about intentions, we need to understand what the character plans to do (as a result of the inciting incident) and give small hints about why they are doing it (deeper desires). We don’t tell all here. If we do, why go on reading?

An element of mystery. Even if you’re not writing a mystery, you need to have something going on that keeps the reader reading. The element of mystery, not knowing all the answers to something, is what creates mystery.

All of these elements must be accomplished in the first chapter in a way that keeps our readers turning pages. We can’t give away too much information and yet we must share just enough. The crucial questions that all writers ask are how much is too much and how much is enough?

What are your experiences? How do you manage to tweak and perfect those first few sentences in order to hook your reader?

Take a peek at e-Murderer. Book 1 in the Jenna Scali mystery series.

Free At Last–Flash Fiction

Perhaps it will touch your heart. Enjoy a taste of flash fiction.DSC02093

 

The face in the sun, which looks like the man in the moon, grins at me through the window. I burrow deeper under my covers so I won’t see him.

“It’s up time, Joanie,” Mama hollers from the staircase. I put the pillow over my head, hoping to disappear.

Hands lift the covers off me and rub my arms. “C’mon, Joanie, get up. You need to get dressed for school.”

“No, mama, please don’t make me go.”

“But you have to. You’ll have fun. Let’s get you dressed in something special. Let’s see…” She pulls out the crimson, taffeta dress, the one the other kids laugh at, the one she made for me. “You haven’t worn this in a while.”

She slips it over my head. It crinkles every time I move. I can’t tell her I don’t want to wear it. I used to like this dress. When Mama was making it, I begged and begged to try it on. The first time I wore it, I practically danced to school.

But then Herman pulled on my hem and said, “Sounds like a Christmas present.” The other boys started tugging at me. After a bit I got so upset, I peed in my panties. I have not done that since I was a real little kid.

Mama buckles my shoes over my socks. “We’ll braid your hair later. Get on downstairs and eat breakfast with your sisters.”

I trudge down the stairs, looking for a place to escape.

Grandma is at the table with my sisters. She gets up when I enter the kitchen.

I plop down next to Lottie who was eating a disgusting bowl of Graham crackers and milk. The smell makes my stomach turn.

“I don’t want that,” I say, pointing to the mush Lottie is putting in her mouth. Lottie grins at me with brown flakes in her teeth. Ellen is at the other end of the table with her elbows firmly in place and shoving cereal in her mouth. She barely looks up when I sit down.

Grandma puts a bowl in front of me. “How about some Rice Krispies?”

I eat as slowly as I can, counting to ten before I take a bite. Maybe I’ll miss school.

Mama comes in and braids my hair as I eat. She pulls it too hard and I whimper. “Sorry, sweetheart,” she says.

Ellen walks me to school even though I know the way. I memorized the path the first time so I could come home. I did that until Mama got real mad at me and told Ellen to make sure to hand me over to the teacher.

Ellen doesn’t take my hand but she pushes me as we make our way to the school. I want to run away, but she keeps giving me a nudge. Finally we are at the door to my classroom. She shoves me toward the teacher and says, “Get lost.” Then she disappears in the crowd of kids.

The one thing that keeps me coming back to school is Rosie. She’s my favorite doll. They keep her in a big chest with other toys. The second day of school I found her tossed in the box with big trucks and other heavy tractors on top of her. I pulled her out, rescuing her from that awful place.

As soon as I get in the classroom, I go to the chest and dig for Rosie. Someone shoved her way down in the dark. I twist her out. Her legs are bent. I can’t straighten them. Some of her hair is missing. I tip her back and one of the eyes closes, but the other stays open and stares at me.

The teacher calls us to our seats. I take Rosie. When it’s time to go home, I keep Rosie tucked under my arm. I don’t want to put her back in the box where it’s dark and where she’ll get hurt.

On the way out, the teacher says to me, “You need to return the doll to the toy chest. You can’t take her home. She belongs here.”

A tear rolls down my cheek, but the teacher grabs Rosie from my grasp. “The toys are for all the children. Not just for you.”

The rest of the school year drags like waiting for Daddy to come home or for Christmas to come. I ask the teacher to let me stay inside during play period. I don’t want to go out in the cold with the other kids. The boys hit me with a ball, and I don’t want to play with them. She makes me go until I pee on my dress.

“Why didn’t you say you needed to use the bathroom,” the teacher says. Her face is red with anger. I didn’t know I needed to use the bathroom until I got scared. I try to tell her, but she just thrusts me in the bathroom and closes the door. I cry for long enough to miss play period.

Finally when the last day of school comes, I tuck Rosie under my sweater. I can’t leave her here in this awful place, alone, cold, and with no one to love her. I hide her, and I walk slowly so no one will see.

We are nearly home when Ellen tugs on my arm and Rosie nearly falls out on the pavement, but I catch her. “What’s that?” she asks.

“The teacher said I could have her,” I lie. I don’t usually lie but this was a special situation. I had to save Rosie. Free her.

Ellen doesn’t care. She slams the backdoor entering the house. Grandma says, “What have you got there?”

Getting better at lying now, I tell her, “It was a prize. I won it for being good.”

“How nice. Let’s get her cleaned up.” My grandmother takes her and cleans her face and brushes her hair. Now I can see Rosie’s cheeks and her lips.

That night I take Rosie to bed. Just before Mama turns off the light, I look at Rosie. She’s lying next to me with one eye open and the other closed. It’s as if she’s winking at me. She knows my secret.

I freed her and she’ll never tell.

***

If you enjoyed this story, you might enjoy my other writing. Check out the book trailer for e-Murderer.

What Are Beta Readers and How to Find Them?

Book WomanOkay, so you’ve finished your first draft. You’ve done everything you can with it. You’ve read it and re-read it to the point of total exhaustion. In fact you’ve gone over it so many times, that you’re not sure you’re reading the words on the page or if you have the pages memorized. What’s next?

These are people willing to read your manuscript and give you honest, constructive criticism. They are not people who will read your manuscript and say, “It’s wonderful,” without elaboration. Of course it’s wonderful. You’ve been working on it for months. You need to know more than a gut reaction to your story.

Betas are tests–trying out a test product, for example. The product is tested before going to market. Your book is no different. These are the things Beta readers can help you with:

  1. Does the story make sense. Is the plot clear? Or are you jumping around?
  2. What did you leave out? Maybe you forgot that you told a character you’d call him in an hour. Things happened and you forgot all about it. Your readers won’t. Beta readers catch these kinds of slip-ups.
  3. Does the reader feel in the place. In other words, have you created a believable setting?
  4. Are your characters acting “in character”? You haven’t had your shy character do something bold without good reason.
  5. Obvious typos that you’ve read over a million times.
  6. Timeframe. Could something happen within this time period. Did you mess up the timeframe? Maybe the story began on a Tuesday. How many days later did things happen? Is it still Tuesday?
  7. Are there too many characters? Have you introduced the people in your story well enough for your readers to keep them straight?
  8. Does the story grab the reader? If so, when? The first page, the second chapter?
  9. Is the ending satisfactory? Did you tie everything together?

They are reading to help you tweak and polish your story. Finding people willing to read a 300+ manuscript and answer all these kinds of questions isn’t easy. Here are some tips for finding Beta readers:

Tip #1: Other writers. We depend on each other. Each reads the other’s works. It’s a trade-off.

Tip #2: Find people who you trust will give you constructive criticism. They are not afraid of hurting your feelings. You want tough Beta readers.

Tip #3: Good editors make good Beta readers. If you know someone who edits other things, articles, nonfiction works, academic theses, these people often enjoy reading a novel as a change of pace and would welcome being one of your Beta readers.

Tip #4: Don’t rely on one reader. You need at least two and possibly three Beta readers. Too many will confuse you. Everyone has an opinion and often those opinions vary. But, if three readers tell you the same thing, that is something you should note.

Tip #5: If you don’t pay your Beta readers (there are some people who charge a small fee), then do something nice for them. Take them to coffee or out for a glass of wine to show your appreciation.

Tip #6: Acknowledge your Beta readers in your Acknowledgements in your final book. People love to see their name in print. Give them that bit of glory for all their hard work.

These are my tips for finding Beta readers. What are some of yours? Do you have Beta readers?

My newest book Murder on Moonshine Hill releases in one month. Check out the latest reviews here. I thanked my three Beta readers in the Acknowledgements. I couldn’t have written such a polished finished product without their help.