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If you’ve ever been bitten by a story idea, an idea that seems compelling and interesting but could never be grand enough for a novel, try condensing it into a bite-sized flash. Take that story idea, build it as you would, then burn and carve away anything unnecessary. The basic structure should remain. Choose words and sentences that say much more than what’s written. Every word must be essential. The fewer the words, the greater the impact.

The purpose of flash fiction is to deliver the basic elements of a story—main character, conflict and resolution—all with an economy of words and a punch at the end. This final punctuation can be a twist, a chord of irony, a humorous note. The story can appear to be one thing only to be illuminated in the finale as quite another.

This blink-of-an-eye exercise forces you to create a snap shot in time and build suspense and the element of surprise with harnessed language. If you can wield tension powerfully in a flash fic piece with 500 words or less, just think what you could do in long fiction.

Try it out, be creative, have fun and aim for a knockout. The bloodshed and thrashing of your work, though brutal, will produce a beautiful piece of art.

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Congratulations to our resident blogger Sybil Nelson for winning The Strongest Start Competition at TheNextBigWriter.com with her middle grade entry, Priscilla the Great. She also has a movie deal for it. Now all she needs a publisher to realize the awesomeness of Priscilla The Great.

To get a sense of Priss’s voice, check out her blog Prissy Fit and the way-cool Priscilla The Great website. You can also get Twin Shorts FREE, a short story collection about Priscilla’s devil twin brothers written by Priscilla via the masterful pen of  Sybil The Great Nelson.

~ CV

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Please welcome our guest blogger, K.L. Brady, author of The Bum Magnet. I asked her to share her story, since she has such a cool one.

K. L. Brady is a D.C. native but spent a number of her formative years in the Ohio Valley. She’s an alumnus of the University of the District of Columbia and University of Maryland University College, earning a B.A. in Economics and M.B.A., respectively. She works as an analyst for a major government contracting firm and is an active real estate agent with Exit Realty by day—and writes by night (often into the wee hours of the morning). She lives just outside of D.C. in Cheltenham, Maryland, with her son, William, and two pet Betta fish, Spongebob and Jerry, and lives to eat chocolate, shop, read, and write.

How My Publishing Deal Found Me…

Some say luck is when preparation meets opportunity. I probably wouldn’t consider myself “lucky” any other way.

A few short months ago I was offered a two-book deal with Simon and Schuster on the first novel I ever wrote. Authors go years and years waiting for the fortuitous “break” to happen—sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. So, I’m often asked what was the secret ingredient? Karla, how you did get an editor to notice your novel? The easy answer is, “I dunno!”
The complex answer is I prepared like hell for opportunity, and when it came, I was ready.

For those who may not be aware, I self-published my debut novel, The Bum Magnet officially in October 2009, after fruitlessly trying to find literary representation. By February 2010, an executive editor at a publishing house had expressed interest in my book. A month later, I had an agent, and within another month I had a deal.

So, how did I prepare?

1. I wrote a pretty good book. It’s commercial which, in short, means the editors think it has the potential to sell a lot of copies. In all the letters I received back from editors, rejections or expressing interest, nearly every single one said they are looking for good commercial fiction and asked my agent to send it the moment he got his hands on it.

2. I also workshopped it and had it proofread and edited pretty well. Not perfectly mind you, but pretty well. I quite frankly could not afford to get the line edit from a former editor at a publishing house like I really wanted to do. So, I opted for the cheaper manuscript review in which she read the entire manuscript and gave me tips on plot, structure, pacing, etc. The suggestions she made were VERY minor, she was surprised that it required so little—but this was after it had been workshopped on TheNextBigWriter.com.
3. I designed the book so that it looked professional, that includes ensuring that it had a catchy book cover. Feedback has been about 70-30 in favor of the design. Can’t please everyone…but you can try to please as many as you can.


4. I designed and implemented a comprehensive marketing strategy.
The ebook versions on Kindle and Smashwords were as much a part of my marketing strategy as they were a part of my sales strategy. I sold them for 99 cents and got them into A LOT of hands. My Amazon rankings shot up high and remained there for a long time. My priority was getting my work out there, not profit.

I promoted my book like CRAZY. Every single day, I did at least 3 to 5 marketing activities. Posted it anywhere they would allow you to post a book. Promoted everywhere I could, including on the Amazon Discussion Boards which is where I think I had the most success. I also marketed heavily to book clubs.

5. Got it reviewed. I sent it out to book blogs, book clubs, and review sites and requested reviews. Among the most helpful were the book clubs and the Midwest Book Review, at least I believe that’s where I got some attention.

Along came Luck…

Fast forward to sometime in early February 2010. To this day, I don’t know how she found me, but the editor from Kensington sent me an email and said that she was interested in talking about my book. Needless to say, I was over the moon. We spoke the next day for about 45 minutes or so.

The details are foggy now. I just thought it was surreal to be talking to her. She has a number of African-American NY Times Bestsellers on her list (Carl Weber, Mary B. Morrison, Mary Monroe). I knew exactly who she was and I knew the publisher well. As a matter of fact, I had sent a partial in mid 2009 but never heard from her. (For those of you not aware, you can query Kensington editors directly. You don’t need an agent.)

So, she asked me about how I got into writing, how I went about publishing my book, what kind of marketing plan I’d put together, etc. In one of the funnier moments in the conversation, she asked me if I’d queried any agents or editors. I said, “Well, as a matter of fact I sent my partial to you.”

She got quiet and I heard her fish around her desk. She had my query sitting in an envelope right in her overhead. Ha! How’s that for coincidence? Of course, she was mortified. I told her not to feel bad. I truly believe that things happen for a reason. There was a reason that she didn’t read it back then. So, she suggested she’d be making me an offer. She asked me for a copy of my manuscript and to see my two works in progress. So, I sent them to her.

I was advised to get an agent and sent a note to the editor asking if she minded. She said no. As a matter of fact, she referred an agent to me.
At that point, I knew she was serious.

I queried a few agents, including the one she recommended for me. I went on Publisher’s lunch and found agents who worked with author in similar genres. I wanted someone with experience in selling African American (AA) fiction. Within a few days I had a few that were very interested. I ended up picking the agent who represented two female best-selling AA authors who write in different genres than mine. He had great credentials (a former editor for big houses) and he knew how to sell AA fiction. I couldn’t go wrong.

He asked me to make a few edits to the manuscript. Admittedly, I was reticent only because my book was already out there. But it came down to the fact that, even though I’d sold a couple thousand copies (ebook and paperback), I hadn’t sold enough to the point where changes to the manuscript would impact millions of readers.

So, I got over myself and my few measly sales and I made the changes he suggested. He sent it out wide—meaning submitted to all the major editors at the major publishing houses that he thought would be interested. He submitted it just as he would an unpublished manuscript but in the accompanying letter, we let them know that it had been self published, received great reviews, was building word of mouth, yadda yadda yadda.

So, two weeks go by and the rejections start rolling in. After about 4 or 5 I asked if I should get depressed and he said we had a long way to go. Finally, an editor from S&S said she liked it and was passing it around. The original editor who expressed interest from Kensington was still interested and waiting on her boss to return from vacation. Then another editor from Grand Central (Hachette) expressed interest. After all the offers and counteroffers, we finally accepted the one with Pocket.

That’s pretty much the story.

To answer some of the questions I received, no one ever asked about my sales numbers until after the offers were made. I did not query anyone after I published the book. I queried before I published but not after. So, I can’t really say whether trying to query an agent or publisher after you’ve self-published will work for you. I didn’t have to query.

How do I think she found me? Well, my book had been reviewed on several sites where her authors book were also reviewed. Mine was one of the few self-published books to get a 5-star rating, “favorite,” or “top read” status. My book also stayed in the Top 100 African American fiction list on Amazon. I went through the list at the time, and I was the only book on the list that didn’t have a publisher. I’d also been reaching out to book clubs and stuff like that. So, there are a lot of ways she could’ve found out.

I was also asked why if an author, such as myself, was doing well in distributing my book and getting good reviews, why would I relinquish control and sell my rights to a publisher?

Without a whole lot of work, there is no way I could reach the audience that S&S or another major publisher could reach. It was not about the advance for me. It was about the opportunity this deal offered to build my author brand and I plan to take advantage of every perk the brand and affiliation with a house comes with to market and sell more books. As a new/first-time novelist, I also wanted the chance to work with an editor so that I can improve my craft.

So, the long and short of this story is, I didn’t really find this deal, it found me. Your deal is waiting to find you too, and it all starts with writing a good book. When opportunity knocks, just make sure you’re ready!

Thanks, K.L, for sharing your story and what worked for you. Check out the synopsis and trailer for The Bum Magnet.

SYNOPSIS:

Real estate agent Charisse Tyson seems to have it all-a great job, a dream car, and a McMansion in high-and-mightyville. Everything in her life is just right…except the Mister. While lamenting the break-up with her most recent “the one” during a holiday meltdown, Charisse realizes she has a type when it comes to men—players, players, and more players. A magazine article motivates her to swear off men and examine the complex roots of her romantic fiascos.

Just five simple steps to turn her life to the stuff of legends, right? Life is never that easy…  Charisse commences her do-it-yourself therapy project and barely cracks open her emotional toolbox when she encounters the monkey wrenches: an irresistible new beau, two persistent ex-flames, and an FBI agent with life-altering secrets threatening to turn her world upside-down.  A tug of war ensues and Charisse is dead center, trying her best to distinguish the Don Juans from the Romeos. As her love life is propelled into unpredictable twists not even she could imagine, will a twenty-seven-year-old secret keep Charisse from finding the right “one”?  Laugh loud and often as Charisse discovers whether her choices in men reflect more than a penchant for good looks, great sex, and bad judgment.

TRAILER:

Thanks so much, K.L. Very informative post. I especially enjoyed the marketing aspect, which included things I hadn’t thought of.

Swing by K.L. Brady’s blog and website if you’d like to connect or learn more about her upcoming novels.

~ CV

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Have you ever read a piece of fiction that felt incomplete?  You wonder what’s lacking, but can’t pinpoint the missing pieces of the puzzle?  Chances are, the author overlooked some vital bit of craft.

Fiction never comes out right the first time, unless you’re a genius.  It takes several drafts before all the elements needed to complete a good story are in place.  Some call this process layering, which includes essentials such as setting, sensory details, emotional depth and character movement.

Countless people use fiction as a means of escape; they’re armchair adventurers who steep themselves in the quests undertaken by fictional characters, and it is the writer’s responsibility to ensure this escape materializes.  One the ways of doing this is through setting.

Before my final draft of any story, Jamaica is invisible.  It is where I grew up and where I live, nothing exciting about it, right?  Not so for a non-Jamaican.  It’s an exotic location; somewhere he’d/she’d love to go on vacation.  For those who can’t travel, the next best thing is a story that familiarizes them with the island.  A vibrant setting lends authenticity to the tale being told.  Each reader will take something different away from your descriptions and that’s fine; we all create unique mental pictures as we read.

Setting is bigger than mere location.  Your story may be about an isolated village in the Blue Mountains, but it speaks to the bigger picture – values and norms of Jamaican society.  The dialect in that remote village perhaps contrasts with how the people in the nearby town speak.  In your story locale, families may intermarry, but that isn’t the norm outside those surroundings.  Life may differ in the capital city, fifty miles away.   Setting creates a bigger canvass against which the reader outlines the pictures painted for him by the author.

The setting also reflects the mood and theme of the story.  Say your story is about a woman with mental problems.  Unexplained things happen around her.  She starts doubting her sanity, but suspects her estranged husband is orchestrating the weird occurrences.  She’s confined to her house and starts seeing shadows and wispy images of long-dead people.

What would send fear chasing down your spine?  Seeing her indoors on a sunshiny day, jumping at shadows, or watching her alone in the house on a stormy night, thunder rolling, wind outside, rain beating against the windows and doors?  After a crack of thunder, the electricity supply goes.  The shifting shadows merge into terrifying shapes. By this time, your protagonist is shaking with fright, and so are you.  This is how setting enhances the mood of the story and places the reader in the picture with the character.

Sensory details allow us to delve under the character’s skin.  We experience their interaction with the environment unconsciously and take sight, taste, touch, hearing and the sense of smell for granted.  We only miss these background details — which enhances the reader’s experience — if the writer neglects to include them.   An expert will weave details seamlessly into prose.  Note the following examples.

Veronica walked to the edge of the verandah and sat down in the creaking patio chair.  The sun blazed outside and the leaves shook on the fruit trees in the yard.   Bruised mangoes lay under a tree.  Veronica decided to see if any of the mangoes could be eaten and got up, scraping her elbow against the edge of the chair.

The example above has to potential to involve all the senses, however, as written I only experienced sight, sound and touch.  Consider the example below.

Veronica strolled to the edge of the verandah and slumped in the patio chair.  It squalled like the damn cat did whenever she caught its tail in the door.  The sun warmed her skin, and she squinted when the glare off the burnt grass hit her eyes.

The wind tumbled through the trees and set the leaves chattering.  Mangoes hurtled to the ground, as though thrown by invisible hands.   The overripe fruit under the tree stared out of blackened eyes, their aroma heady on the breeze.  Veronica salivated; she loved East Indian mangoes. Might as well collect a few before the dog got to them.  She dragged her hands along the chair arm and prepared to rise.  Something sharp clawed the back of her right arm.  She cupped her elbow and peered at the angry red line that marred her skin.

The second illustration used more words, but it also painted a vivid picture of the same scene, using all the sensory elements.

Months ago, I read a report that said sales of romance novels were on the increase in America, despite the harsh economic climate.  Some sources put this down to escapism, and there are always the emotional junkies, who buy into love stories.  Romance novels do exceptionally well at dropping the reader into the character’s headspace.  To make this happen, the writer has to get inside the hero/heroine’s skin and live there for the duration of time it takes to complete the novel.

This smacks of role-playing, and it is.  You must live the experience of a character to be able to pull someone else into that character’s life.  A critique partner of mine commented recently on a scene I’d written where a man agonized — and this is a strong description for what I originally wrote — over whether he’d go to jail on a murder charge.  She noted that I had to inject more internal monologue to show the man’s agitation and fright.  She was right.

How can a storyteller write about a prostitute’s humiliation at the hand of a client, the loss of a child, or the motivation of a woman who’s killed her sister, without being in that position? As dramatic as it sounds, I’ve shed tears over my characters, having placed myself in their situation while seeking solutions to their challenges.

If the emotional depth of your characters is akin to the skimming motion of an egret, as it ruffles the surface of a pond, then your story is going to lack life and verisimilitude.  Think of the last novel or short story you read that stayed in your mind for days or weeks afterwards.  I’m sure it was because you fought the same battles and tasted the victories as if they were yours.

A little less important than emotional involvement is the movement of your characters – not from place to place, but within their current setting.  Sometimes, due to the intensity of a discussion, we forget that the individuals who populate our stories are living, breathing people.  They walk, wave, grimace, roll their eyes.  In short, they interact with their environment.

I don’t always fine tune this aspect of storytelling until the last pass.  At some point during the revision process, I wonder what people are doing as they speak.  Avoid ‘talking heads’ syndrome at all cost.  Picture yourself, or study friends, relatives and co-workers at home and in the office.  Do they gesticulate while talking?  What does their body language say? When agitated, do they pace, clench their jaw, smooth their hair, shuffle their feet?  Now imagine your hero in the same situation and fill in the necessary touches.

Our life experiences carry over to our writing and the best stories I’ve written are those in which the setting was vivid and the story involved all the senses in some way.  I identified with the characters and established clear pictures of them, in scene.  It takes practice to combine all these elements for fluid storytelling, and it’s more challenging on the scale of a novel.

Writers will acknowledge that it’s not possible to insert all these layers on one edit, so if it helps, jot these notes somewhere close to your computer and ensure you’ve included each element while you proofread.

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Sometimes our work is just not cutting it. Everyone knows it, even your mom, even Santa Claus. You need to be honest with yourself in order to bring your work up to snuff. You may have an unsnuffable work that you need to scrap, as I did with my first novel, and that’s okay. Move on. Pick up the pen. Try again.

Really, really, really read books on craft to give yourself good blueprints and so you can write well and recognize quality from trash.

And even if your work IS cutting it, there are some jewels you should always include to make sure it goes from workable to downright awesome.

1. Good flow

Create good flow, pace and rhythm not just in the plot but in your narrative, the way things unfold, the way sentences and paragraphs connect.

This means varying your sentence length, starting with a gerund every now and then, mixing things up, avoiding crutch words or awkward turns of phrase, not having every sentence start with He/She/Sue . You don’t want to have a choppy read nor do you want to one that forces readers to struggle through shattered and plentiful ten-line sentences.

Avoid dumps  of description and backstory. Even if you’re writing omniscience and can do it seamlessly and the point-of-view character is super observant and truly notices everything you point, don’t go overboard. Consider those details to be ribbons, sequins, accessories. They should dress up your work, not make up the bulk of it. If readers are tugged into a quagmire of verbage, no matter how great it sounds to you, you risk losing them somewhere in Ch. 6.

In my novel, Kings & Queens, I made the mistake of including a few paragraphs of backstory  on my character Derek when I opened his POV, but that clashed with my close perspective. I slashed all that and took it down to a line or two, as it applies to his thoughts in the scene.

Sometimes we get caught up in wanting to include everything, and too much info can be overwhelming and annoying. Think of your prose as music. Only important details are needed in that score.

When you think you’re all polished and ready to shop, email yourself the first couple of chapters and random sections. It sounds weird I know, but reading scenes out of your text document will help you notice issues with pace and rhythm especially. I noticed some choppiness and sludgy spots in my chapter 1 this way, which is the first thing agents see. Now I’m good to go.

2. Unforgettable Characters

It sounds obvious. Every wants unforgettable characters, but as a reader, how many times have you read a great book, then a month or too later, can’t recall names?  Then you have to skip over to Amazon to check ’cause the not knowing is bugging the snot out of you.

I have photographic memory, and this happens to me. A lot. Even if I loved a story and the characters in it.

Don’t’ let readers experience amnesia. Let your characters jump off the page and demand to be noticed and not quickly forgotten. Develop your characters so that they’re nearly palpable, then tether aspects of plot to their identity and desires. Give an extraordinary quality or interest that’s rarely seen and this will create the memory stickiness you hope to achieve.

3. Fresh Voice

Your voice is in everything you write from tweets to novels. Be inspired, but don’t emulate the style and voice of others. Let your uniqueness come emerge. Voice is an expression of the weird way your mind works, your personality in written word, your take on things, your way of speaking. Even this post has voice.

It should flow out naturally. Even if you write with different tones or various quirky First Person narrators, a bit of you should still shine through. If you’re feeling unsure or self-conscious, it will be noticeable. The only way you can gain confidence and to findYOUR voice is to practice.

People have called my writing quirky and different. I love giving readers golden nuggets of my weirdness. It puts a stamp of branding on my own works.

4. Balance in The Force

Your work can be packed with darkness, conflict and obstacles aplenty, but it should have some kind of forward momentum. In darker works, add some ribbons of dark or dry humor, irony, hyperbole, romance, tone shifts, brief moments of peace, lightness and success. This will bring more scope and needed contrast into your work.

Also, if your work is lighthearted, you should have present or brewing trouble, a paperboy who wants his two dollars, office cat fights (they happen!), insomnia, a stalker, a death in the family, skeletons in the closet, the annoyance of every Starbucks within twenty miles being out of whipped cream so there’s no way to gloriously top off that Java Chip Frap.

Always think about balance and contrast. My novel, Kings & Queens, deals with violence and psychological terror, but it still has bits of humor and scenes that tug at the heart.

So, I’ve given you some direction towards making your work shine. Go write and make your work AWESOME.

~ CV

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I went back to the doctor today even though I think she’s an idiot.  Why did I do this?  Well, she had what I needed, an antibiotic prescription.   I think she’s an idiot because she’s has misdiagnosed me even after I told her what was wrong.    She calmly dismissed my concerns, sent me home with an allergy pill and told me I’d be fine.

My face and jaw have now swollen up to the size of a summer melon and my eyelid is dripping contagious discharge.   So I went back, she charged me for another visit and finally gave me the antibiotic I requested for the severe sinus infection and conjunctivitis .   I knew I was getting a sinus infection and I told her but she dismissed me.

Why am I telling you this super icky story about my health?  Because editors, workshop members, family, friends and agents will try to tell you what is right or wrong with your story.  In some cases, they may be right but, in the end, you know the story better than anyone else.

As a writer, you should have a feeling when something isn’t quite right with your work.  Some say believe in your work and stand by it, no matter what. I say faith in what you’re doing is fine but no matter how much belief you have, it won’t inflate a flat character or fix a monster plot hole.

But you should have faith when you know you’ve polished your work to be the best it can be. Some changes are a matter of taste, not necessity.  Only make changes you can live with.

If something feels truly wrong, then don’t do it.    For example, if your agent says your male cop needs to be a four foot tall female contortionist with a penchant for body piercing, say no if it doesn’t fit your story.

You can say no.  Some writers forget that magic word.

But also remember you need the antibiotic too (book contract).  Is what they’re asking for more than  you’re willing to give?  If they want your male copy to be forty instead of twenty-five, will that ruin the story for you? If not, it may be worth the concession.

But how about if they ask you to amputate?  No way, right?   But what if your manuscript has a malignant plot hole, would you be willing to amputate a sub-plot, a character or your ending to cure it?   Sometimes your manuscript will need a drastic cut to save it.

How do you know when to cut and when to leave it?

There is no hard and fast answer.   I wish I could lie and say there was.   First, ask yourself if a large amount of your target audience agree with the consensus?  You may have to get readers from your demographic to read and give you anonymous feedback.  Sort of like a focus group.  If 90% agree it doesn’t work, you may have to rework it.

If your gut screams no, then write a second version of it with the drastic change for one chapter.  Set both the old and the new versions aside for a month. Then reread it.  Does the change make it a better book? If so, go with the new version.

Lastly, the proof is in the pudding.   If you can’t sell the book to a mainstream publisher without the changes, would you be okay with not publishing or self-publishing?  Is being a commercial success important to you?  How much?

You’re going to meet a lot of book doctors out there on your trip to being published.  Some will lay their hands on you and make you feel all tingly inside but don’t actually cure anything.  Others will be too quick with the knife and cut your work to the bone.  Some just take the money and let you fall on your ass.

But occasionally you meet a doctor who can see the problem and help walk you though the solution.   Those are the book doctors that every writer dreams of.

The one that knows how to make your book the best it can be.

No manuscript starts out perfect.  Its figuring out how to make it happen that makes you a great writer or merely a good one.

Good luck and good writing.

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BE Verbs Be Gone


When I’m penning a first draft, I often don’t care about verbs. Since I just wanna get my ideas down, BE verbs tend to fall into the mix. But for me, they stand as mere placeholders.

BE verbs certainly seem innocent enough. Am, is, are, was, were, been, being and be are efficient, unobtrusive, neat and tiny. They don’t create snags. No one has to look them up in a dictionary. They are standards in the English language, but those little buggers possess dangerous power.

They proclaim laziness, an abundance of passive sentences, and the worst, an amateur status, especially is/was and are/were. They lack sparkle and smother your narrative voice. I know many published writers use BE verbs, and often, but if they’d stretch a little, narration, exposition and First Person drones with lackluster personalities would come alive in new and unexpected ways. Because I am so conscious of them, I find them very distracting in published novels, especially was and were, especially when used 90% of the time. You shouldn’t cave to that bad habit just because others get away with it.  Choose to take pride in your craft and make your sentences shine.

It’s amazing what a bit of tweaking can do for your voice. You want your work to possess freshness and zing, not banality. So when you’re at the editing stage, work on nixing as many BE verbs as you can. I don’t trim them all out. I usually let about 20% remain, where they work/flow/fit well. Works without any can feel too heavy and clunky, but  go for the much prettier cousins when you can. Use BE verbs where it would cause a trip-up if you didn’t, kind of like when you twist your sentences all around to avoid ending with a preposition and end up transporting your readers back to the 1800’s with your very perfect grammar. If it sounds more natural and easier to read with a BE verb—or a sentence-ending preposition—then choose readability over greatness. You want your story to be told in the clearest, best possible way.

Here are some examples of sentences from which I extracted wases:

He was curious to know what they’d do if real guns aligned with their chests, heads and dicks.

He smoldered with curiosity to know what they’d do if real guns aligned with their chests, heads and dicks. (“smoldered with curiosity” reflects the POV character’s darker state of mind. “was” dies on the page)

* * *

Getting to gloat to the Wasps’ athletic director about today’s victory was a definite managerial perk.

Getting to gloat to the Wasps’ athletic director about today’s victory thrilled as a definite managerial perk. (“thrilled” brings in some emotion and characterization)

* * *

Small American flags and seasonal banners, suspended for the St. Patty’s Day Parade, were on utility poles.

Small American flags and seasonal banners, suspended for the St. Patty’s Day Parade, still garnished utility poles. (“still garnished” sets up my next sentence which explains how long those embellishments stay up.)

* * *

Not all words were clear, but what she did gather sent tremors down her spine.

Not all words came out clear, but what she did gather sent tremors down her spine. (not too much different, but “came out” reflects reception and stimulus now.)

* * *

Do you see how using stronger, punchier verbs, infuses the prose with some pizzazz and life? The content is the same, but they sound better, read better and make the sentences overall more interesting.

Sometimes Be verbs ARE the perfect verbs for a sentence. Weigh each one you come across. If stretching gives you nothing better, let it stand. I kept this was because I felt it held strength:

It was the touching, her slender hand slipping willingly into his large mitt, caressing it with waving fingers, that caught Crystal’s eye and triggered an eruption of sneezes.

* * *

In the same vein, 90% of the time, the combos of There was/were, That was/were are unneeded. Just write in what’s there. (There was a biting chill in the air that I could feel in my bones. v. The biting chill in the air slithered into my bones. Go for straightforward, active sentences, which are always more engaging.) You can use such a combo for effect on occasion, if you want to create a sense of eeriness for instance, but keeping a sentence passive when it could be active is just poor writing.)

Regarding BE verbs, with a little mental acrobatics, you can often come up with a much stronger way to say the same thing. Stretch yourself. Making the extra effort will enhance your prose enormously. Go ahead and use BE verbs as placeholders, but consider many of them to BE on the chopping block, and when the time comes, hack them off without mercy.

~ CV

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163169174_35eb6662d9_mOne of the best ways to engage your readers is to make your POV characters identifiable and intriguing. And you do that by making motivations and desires clear, including various types of sensory impressions and giving your characters multiple facets like quirky interests or occupations, different proclivities or issues that can affect how he or she reacts like phobias, skeletons in the closet, job tension or fatigue from insomnia. Okay. Check. You’ve done that. Good. After all this great character building, does your work contain some unwanted distance? Are critters saying your work is pretty good but not engaging? Does your prose feel a bit clumsy? Filtering may be the cause.

Filtering is good for coffee, pools and cigarettes, but not novels. Yet it’s something writers do too frequently because they don’t know they shouldn’t.  But it’s something you should watch for and avoid in your work.

When you use combos like she saw, she felt, she heard etc., instead of just naming the stimulus, it zaps a reader’s connection with the scene character. Saying what’s observed or detected with a filter creates distance and makes readers feel like they’ve been ushered outside the POV just a little bit instead of right there with it. Plus, it mucks up work with superfluous words.

Whether you’re using First, Subjective Third or Omniscience, filtering should be kept at a minimum. Here are some examples that show the difference:

She smelled burgers and bacon from Yesterday’s, which incited hunger pangs. (filtered)
The aroma of burgers and bacon from Yesterday’s incited hunger pangs. (direct)

She noticed the dogwood blossoms that settled on his black Corvette sail off and flutter to the pavement. (filtered)
Dogwood blossoms that settled on his black Corvette sailed off and fluttered to the pavement.
(direct)

When she heard a window pane shatter and clink on the wood floor like crystal rainfall, she scampered to hide. (filtered)
When a window pane shattered and clinked on the wood floor like crystal rainfall, she scampered to hide. (direct)

To find the filtering in your work, look for noun-verb combinations like: she felt, she knew, she saw, she smelled, she heard, she tasted, etc. and could-forms like: she could feel, she could sense, etc. and rewrite them so they’re non-filtered.

In some instances, it’s effective to use a filter like this:

By the time she caught wind of his black cherry-leather cologne, her neck was in the stranglehold of a muscular arm.

She heard somewhere that filters can kill an otherwise good novel.

You can also use a filter to help set up POV.  In Omniscience, filters tend to be used more often, but once POV is established, they can be omitted. If your chosen narrator remains at a distance from all POV characters, not quite as far-removed as Objective/Dramatic nor as close as Subjective, then filtering can be used to maintain this distance throughout.

Filtering is a beginner’s mistake so it comes off as amateurish and that’s not the kind of impression you want to make. Rock on. Write on. Be direct.

~CV

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Having finished one project, I now need to get in the frame of mind to start the process anew. I don’t consciously think about the things that I’m supposed to be doing when I’m writing a story, but there’s some sort of formula.

This new story kind of seeped over from the last project. I don’t know the characters yet, but I’m piecing their history together as I go.

Interestingly, I came across an article which I’ve read several times before, but serves as a reminder of the do’s and don’ts to remember. I got it off Camy Tang’s Blog (Story Sensei) and I’ve encapsulated the points as reminders to myself and those of you who might need help in this area. The article is entitled The Top Ten Mistakes I See in Fiction Manuscripts. Click here to read the full article.

10. Grab the reader by putting him into your character’s skin. Use deep point-of-view.

9. Help the reader feel your character’s emotions. He won’t care about your hero if he’s not experiencing the story with him.

8. Kick-start the novel with a strong opening sentence. Keep your reader engaged at all cost.

7. Give your characters some goals (external) which have to be achieved as the novel progresses. We know they grow and change because we feel their  turmoil, but they gotta have something tangible to work toward, right?

6. Axe any scene that’s not moving the story forward. Forget the ordinary stuff that’s in there as filler and so achieves nothing. No smelling of flowers or chatting over tea that gives no new information or insight.

5. No long descriptive passages with details that can be filled in later. Keep the action humming along.

4. We all agree, conflict keeps our stories rolling forward. Build the conflict and heighten tension to keep readers invested in the story.

3. Write efficiently and with purpose. Forget writing as though you’ve only had one lesson in a workshop for beginners.

2. Cliches are a no-no. Make both the characters and the writing as fresh and intriguing as possible.

1. Know where you are on the journey, and work accordingly. There’s no point rushing through a manuscript to send it off ASAP. We might know we’re talented, but if  we  spread those manuscripts far and wide before they’re error free and read smoothly, we’re only setting ourselves up for embarrassment. This is why I never stop reading on the craft of writing and trying to learn as much as I can. Writing to publication standard takes time and effort.

These pointers will keep me headed in the right direction. I hope they help you too.

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After a little snag in the launch date, Contraband, a romantic suspense novel by resident blogger, J.L. Campbell, is finally gracing shelves and available on Amazon. I read an early version of this book, so I can’t wait to see how it came out. I ordered my copy yesterday. You can get yours too, here.

SYNOPSIS:

As master of his destiny, Paul Weekes does what is necessary to survive. He makes his own fortune, but his luck nosedives when hijackers target his illicit shipments. He has no proof, but suspects the police officer who facilitates his exports off the island of Xantrope has turned on him. To make things worse, Paul’s ne’er-do-well cousin is accidentally involved in a gang murder, and a hit is put on him. A budding liaison with the cop’s niece adds more complication. Janine refuses to accept Paul’s way of life, but inadvertently becomes a victim of his lifestyle. Thrust into kidnapping, double cross and murder, Paul must choose between a relationship with Janine and staying alive long enough to change the course of his future.

Congratulations, J.L., and much success!

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