Magical Fantasy Stories, Both Light & Dark

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Writing Engaging Characters to Hook Your Readers. Do You?

Hard Time (V. I. Warshawski Series #9) Sara Paretsky was recently interviewed in the "By the Book" column in the New York Times on what makes a book good. [The New York Times, 14 Sept 14]

She replied, "Believable characters first, a good story, an understanding of how to pace dramatic action." 

Of course she was talking about crime fiction but I think her words apply to all fiction. I know flat characterization make me drop a book faster than anything else.

How did Paretsky say it? Like most writers, Paretsky's an avid reader. When she was asked about the last book she put down without finishing, her comment: "I read 120 pages and couldn't get engaged with any of the characters."

I read that and didn't feel so mean when I give 4-star reviews. Yeah, writers are like first graders who expect blue ribbons for sitting on the sidelines and picking their noses. They all want five star reviews--even if they don't get outside copy-editing.

But on to writing engaging characters. Barbara Ashford sure doesn't have the problem of cardboard characters. In her Spells at the Crossroads, a combination of two related novels Spellcast and Spellcrossed, she even makes even her Fae character human.
Spellcast
Maggie Graham turns restless after she loses her job to downsizing and, on a whim, takes to the road to explore the New England. She ends up in Dale, Vermont where a community theater, the Crossroads, is casting for positions in its summer stock company. Not only does Maggie get hired, but she's the only one who seems able to connect with the brooding,  "I-vant-to-be-alone" director. Yes, the books are more romance than urban fantasy. Perhaps it's best to say this is Fae fantasy, and Ashfords twists the cliches about Faery about 90 degrees.

Where Spells at the Crossroads excels is in Ashford's characterization. Yeah, Maggie's the intrepid heroine sticking her nose into where it doesn't belong, but she narrates her her story in a wry, first person fashion. Her witty narration of events and her feelings of incompetence have you rooting for her from the beginning. Rowen, the love interest, is dark and brooding and hiding hinted-at secrets. But both are given unexpected angles that make them three-dimensional actors on Ashford's stage.

All Ashford's characters get lots of writer TLC. Where most writers seem to give a their secondary characters a list of physical traits and a tic or two, the Ashford's secondary characters emerge as three-dimensional people with strengths and flaws who influence the plot as much as the principals. Dare I say "stars" since the books are about community theatre. 

And there's more. Ashford's adept at creating tension while giving her readers lots of smiles. Definitely a 5***** book[s]

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Are you wondering how to accomplish
 something similar?

In a recent blog post, writing coach and editor, Jenni Chappelle has written a comprehensive list of the types of body language writers can use to reinforce characterization within their dialog: 9 Simple and Powerful Ways to Write Body Language.

I thought it a good summary, similar to the advice about using all five senses to depict your setting [aka stage]. All good advice, but how often do writers use them? Not often enough, I'd say from my reading of indie ebooks.

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And what have I been doing except for social media until it's coming out of my ears? I'm actually getting some new writing done. The Ghostcrow progresses, and I even have a cover.

Here's a sample of this week's progress:

"Dumdie made a face. She thought pigweed was a zombie plant because, no matter how much you thought you’d killed it, it always returned from the dead, alive and growing more yellow flowers. Green beans were her favorites. They played games with her as they hid among the leaves to see how fat and long they could grow without her finding them. Mr. Carson said she was good enough at finding veggies to be a detective.

A bean detective. Dumdie liked the idea and smiled. Apprehending errant beans."

I hope your writing's going well too.
Readers, if you like humor with your fantasy,
look for Spells at the Crossroads.
You'll be rewarded.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Writers: Do Your Characters Nurture Your Writing?

  Most of the guru-speak I've read/heard talks about what writers must do for their characters. Recently, I began to wonder about what our characters should do for us. Lots of kids eventually take care of their parents as they get older.Why can't characters help writers as their series age?

  One book's a cinch...if you've got the writing chops. At the start of the series, the characters present a new land to be explored, complete with new concepts and problems. I recently exchanged reviews with a writer who came up with an intriguing new take on angel-human relationships--at least it was new to me, Amy Vansant's Angeli -- The Pirate, the Angel and the Irishman.

  The storyline traces the progress of Anne Bonney, the pirate of renown, as she becomes a Sentinel, a policeman for angels gone so bad they drain people of their energy. Yeah, she's as much of a rule breaker as a Sentinel as she was as was as an 18th century woman. 

  But there's more to like with the book: a love triangle that's announced in the title, but the book is more than a common chick-lit romance. Vansant has a rollicking sense of humor that turns the entire read into a smile-fest, even though the heros are chasing an evil bad guy or guys. I imagine sequels will have problems avoiding reruns of the same old motives, but for now the story line is a fresh as the morning sunshine after a rain. May Vansant prove me wrong. 
5*****

  Then, there's the other end of a writing career. I read several authors automatically when I find their new mass paperback editions. And sometimes, I re-read previous titles if a new one doesn't come out quickly enough. When you've written many books about the same characters, It takes true creativity to keep from recycling the same ideas over and over. Granted there has to be some overlap if a bunch of books are to be a series. The trick is in keeping the books exploring new territory.

  One of the writers who amazes me with her consistency and her inventiveness is Kay Hooper. I think I started reading her titles back in the 1990s. I'm still reading them even though she's basically a romance writer, and most romances bore me. 

  Her psychic F.B.I. agents, led by Noah Bishop, and their civilian counterpart [Haven] are a different story. I like the way Hooper plays with the supernatural even if her books tend to get repetitive. I've recently read Hostage and Haven. They are set in a new trilogy, as usual with her writing pattern, and deal with a new enemy who plots to destroy Bishop. At least that what previous nemesises have threatened to do. Hooper's achievement? She puts together a good thriller with a well-fleshed killer, usually with strong, realistic psychic abilities. 

One device Hooper uses to keep her books fresh is a romance as a sub-plot. Each book presents a new psychic couple discovering each other as they hunt down a killer. Yeah, the premise is used in hundreds of books each year. Hooper does it without putting you to sleep.

  One of the problems with a long running series is that sameness does creep in. Another negative, Bishop too often plays the role of puppet master to his investigators. Granted Hooper delivers a fun, fast paced read with lots of chills, but her ideas are starting to feel a little shop worn.
4**** for both books.


<<>> 

  Have been having fun with Crossings. Spent huge amounts of time submitting it to promo sites when I'd rather be writing. Truth be told. I'm still doing it. My big achievement. Crossings is up on Amazon for free at the moment.

  The results? Crossings has ranked at high as #3 in this obscure Kindle category.

When I copied it from my listings, it was #9. Surprise. Surprise. It even looks like there might be a couple sales on the chart for The Ghost in the Closet, but I doubt if they amount to a cup of coffee.

  Oh, and I even have some 5***** reviews of my own.

  Don't think I'm resting on my "best-selling" laurels though. The Ghost Crow is progressing. I'm taking my own advice and recycling Dumdie Swartz of The Ghost in the Closet. This time with a story set during her teen years -- though I don't think of it as YA. I'm maybe halfway through the first draft, and I know where I'm going.

  My Far Isles Half-Elven? They're are resting in obscurity though they sometimes appear on the first page in Goggle and Bing under the search term "Half-Elven". People even click through. How do I know? My website links are the only places where I promote The Foiling of Gorsfeld, a story set during Mariah's teen years, and it gets downloaded regularly.


Care to share how you've recycled some of your characters?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Do Your Characters Advance Your Plot? One Excellent Example.

Don't know which pulls me into a story more. Different, Interesting characters or a fast-paced plot with loads of suspense. Then, there are the books that give you both. White Fire, featuring their FBI Special Agent Pendergast, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child does just that.

Pendergast has landed in my to-read pile several times. Have always enjoyed the fast moving plots. But this time around, I noticed something different: how Preston and Child used their characters to squeeze the most out of their plot.

The book proceeds in a linear fashion, using very short chapters to feature each bit of action. More important, the chapters are told from different viewpoints. Not only do the chapters present important information within the action sequences, but they also flesh out both main and secondary characters. The reader not only gets to know who they are but sympathize for their problems too.

My favorite example in this book was Pendergast's encounter with a survivalist who has his whole community scared of him. Pendergast goes to his cabin deep into the high mountains of Colorado in spite of all the advice to the contrary, and then, squeezes the information out of the gun nut in a tense show down. The readers already know Pendergast has nerves of titanium but must wonder if a stronger metaphor is needed.

Another 5***** rating, for general, edge-of-the-chair excellence. Oh, the growth of Pendergast's somewhat clueless protege also deserves kudos.
 
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Absolute Write Water Cooler has been one of my favorite go-to places for information about the publishing world. Next on my list is Writer Beware, now written by Victoria Strauss and connected with the SFWA for years. The Writer Beware blog recently discussed a troll campaign against the Cooler -- mostly because commentators tend to be a little rough when they think someone isn't being quite honest or isn't a good bet to effectively deliver on the services the offer.Take a look at Strauss' blog: Haters Gonna Hate.

I've read the forums for years, mostly as a lurker because I don't think I have much expertise to offer. In my readings, I've thought the most of the comments are right on. If a discussion starts chasing its tails over the same ground, the moderator has usually stepped in to calm things down.

My biggest piece of wisdom from the forums: Give a new publisher a couple years to prove they know what they're doing before you trust your manuscript to them. They tend to go belly-up for many reasons -- even though their prinicpals have the noblest of intentions when they start their publishing enterprise. It's not just publishing. All start-ups fail at astonishing rates.


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Crossings: A Tale of Andor
is now #free
[at least until 15 Sep 2014]

You can download the enovella at Amazon, Nook, KOBO, and Smashwords.
It's also up on the iBookstore, but I couldn't find where they hid the price.

Special review exchange offer: 
If you download and review #Crossings, let me know. [You can contact me at mkkaytheod-at-yahoo-dot-com.] I'll return the favor if you send me a PDF or code for a free copy. Just be warned, I'll give three star ratings if your formatting, grammar, and spelling are off. I'll also say if you don't hold my interest. Whatever, I'll share my comments before I post them if the rating is less than four-star, and you can decide whether they go public or not. Think of this as being a one-time critique partner.

Guess you could also comment here if your book/story is a free download. It might give you a little publicity.