Saturday, October 25, 2014

Seven Essentials For Powerful Fiction

with guest Brandy Vallance.

It’s a great honor to be on Seekerville today! I’m very excited to chat with all of you about one of my favorite subjects—fiction! We all want to know what makes powerful fiction, right? Well, here are some things I’ve noticed: 

1. Relatable Characters

I recently did a YouTube video with Chris Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey and Hollywood film consultant. We often hear that our characters need to be likeable, but Chris says they only need to be relatable. We should be able to see ourselves (or the human condition) in every character that we write. Although we may not agree with a character’s choices, we at least need to understand what brought them to that decision. 

2. Real Emotions

How many emotions do you experience in a week? A month? If someone told your story, what emotions would they put on the page? Think about your lowest moment and your best experience. I know it’s scary, but if you want your stories to have power, you have to be willing to be vulnerable. You have to be willing to translate your emotions and experiences into ink and paper.                                                                                                                    
Maya Angelou said,  

"I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." 

This is true for life and fiction. Emotion is what will carry your story to the end and leave your readers with a lasting impression. If you can make someone laugh, cry, or ache, you have done your job as a novelist. You have made them feel.          
Suspense author Brandilyn Collins says, 

“You should never apologize for human emotion.” 

I think as writers sometimes we’re afraid to let people know that we feel as deeply as we do. We’re tempted to write half-truths in the fear of being judged. But you have to decide what kind of writer you’re going to be. If you truly want to write fiction that is unforgettable, you have to be willing to go deep.                             

3. Vivid Settings

Readers come to fiction for a couple of reasons. Sometimes they want to be entertained. Sometimes they want to escape. They always want to learn. Therefore, make your settings all of these things—an entertaining escape where the reader will come away knowing something they didn’t know before. Make your settings so real that your reader can smell the air and feel the heat from a fire. Find ways to make the ordinary extraordinary. Treat your setting as another character. This is vital. Every city has a certain mood. Get that onto your pages. 

One of the best parts about being a fiction writer is that we get to experience many lives and many places. When I’m writing, I listen to the music from the area I’m writing about. If possible, I eat the food. Immerse yourself in every aspect of your world as much as you can. This will make a difference in your fiction. 

4. Unexpected Plot

I’m not sure where I heard this quote, but I think there’s something to it: 

“Dismiss the first thing that comes to mind and write the buried truth.”

 Usually when I’m stuck on a plot point, I make a list. On this list I do stream of consciousness writing. That means I write down all my ideas, no matter how ridiculous. The list might look something like this: 

Says he’s sorry
Questions his vocation
Questions his father
Flies to the moon
Becomes a pirate
Shaves a dog
Is secretly working for the queen
Is secretly working for the French
Kisses Feya
Gets kidnapped
Finds a key
Finds a lock
Finds a knife
Finds Winston Churchill

Sometimes my list takes up an entire page. Usually, by the time I get to the bottom, I have an idea that I can work with.  

Powerful fiction often has a plot that the reader didn’t see coming. Learn the art of misdirection. Subtly give the reader hints that will logically lead their thoughts where you want them to go. Then, do the opposite thing. 

5. The Five Senses

If your scene lacks tension, look at the five senses. Have you used them all? Make the reader feel what your character feels. Use strong, descriptive words. Don’t just have a pillow in your scene, have a blue velvet pillow. Is your character drinking something? Make us taste it. Give us the heat of the tea in our mouths. And, as your character swallows, allow us to taste the floral undertones. Take time with scents and textures. Let the reader live vicariously. 

I teach a writing workshop and I talk about the power of suggestion. Another way to bring in sense of sight is to use color. Did you know that every color has an emotional association? Google “color association” and then look at the images that come up. 

What emotion do you want your reader to feel in your scene? Insert the associative color and see if it works. Have your character walk into a room and make the walls a certain color that corresponds with an emotion you want to bring out. You can use this like foreshadowing. Or, maybe there’s an object of note in the room. Play around with color and see what happens. 

6. Tension On Every Page

The most powerful fiction always has supreme tension. Years ago, I read a Writer’s Digest article entitled The Trouble With Tea. The idea was that you should skip all the mentions of food or drinks that don’t have tension within them. Don’t have your characters drinking tea just because. There has to be something deeper going on in the story—tense dialogue perhaps. 

7. Torture The Reader Until The End

Stephen King says, 

“Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once.” 

This is certainly true. Learn to sprinkle your secrets strategically throughout your book. First, hook the reader. Then, draw them in. Portray real, raw, deep emotion. Continue to raise the stakes. Heighten every scene—it can always be bigger! When the end finally does come, your reader will be sorry to close the book. The characters will feel real to them. And that’s what you want. 

Next time you’re told that your fiction lacks power, try some of the above suggestions. I’d love to know what works for you!

Some questions to ponder: 

*What books have you read that have included all of the above points?

*Which of these points do you have the most trouble executing?

*Did I leave something out? Is there something else you’ve noticed that makes fiction powerful? 

*Have you ever read a character that you didn’t agree with but who you could relate with?

*Does writing deep emotion scare you? 

*When you’re reading, what makes you skim the pages? 

Brandy Vallance fell in love with the Victorian time period at a young age, loving the customs, manners, and especially the intricate rules of love. Since time travel is theoretically impossible, she lives in the nineteenth century vicariously through her novels. Unaccountable amounts of black tea have fueled this ambition. Brandy's love of tea can only be paralleled by her love of Masterpiece Theater Classics, deep conversations, and a good book. Brandy is the 2013 Operation First Novel winner and the 2012 winner of the ACFW Genesis Contest for historical romance. You can connect with Brandy via her website, Facebook, Goodreads, Pinterest, YouTube, or Twitter @BrandyVallance.

The Covered Deep

Some Dreams Are Worth Searching For

Bianca Marshal is looking for a man who can quote Jesus and Shakespeare. Not surprisingly, that man is hard to find in the small Appalachian town where she lives. Her mother insists that Bianca lower her standards. One the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday, Bianca wonders if her mother is right. 

Still set on experiencing love, or at least a little adventure, Bianca wins an essay contest that propels her into a whirlwind search for the perfect romantic hero. Via the opulence of London and the mysteries of Palestine, Bianca's true love will be revealed--but not without a price that might be too heavy to pay. 

Today, Brandy is giving away two copies of The Covered Deep to our Seekerville commenters. Leave a comment letting us know you want your name put in the silk purse for the giveaway. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Seven Things That Will Make Your Editor Happy

with guest Erica Vetsch.
Happy Birthday, Seekerville! I can’t believe it’s been SEVEN years already! Thank you for having me back again. It’s an honor!

Last time I was here, things got real. I was in a pretty raw and lonely place, and I wrote about what happens to a published author when that next contract doesn’t come…when they’re writing in the weeds. (You can read the post by clicking HERE) I wanted to thank you all very much for your support and encouragement following that post.  

Since the airing of that blog-post, I’m happy to report that there has been a nice uptick in my writing activity. (You can read about the happy news HERE) So, now that I’m back under deadline, and in keeping with Seekerville’s SEVENTH birthday, I thought I’d share with you seven things that make an editor happy…and we ALL want to make our editors happy, right?

1.    Write the book you said you would.

If your editor has contracted a Historical Romance story from you, don’t turn in an epic sci-fi/fantasy piece that you just couldn’t get out of your head. While most editors understand that writers are creative people with lots of ideas, when you’ve signed on the dotted line to deliver a certain product, that’s the product you should deliver. Anything else gums up the works. Publishing houses work far in advance of a books’ release with marketing copy, retail placements, advertising spots, etc. They cannot, and most likely will not switch gears just because you chose to chase a wild hare.

My publishing house has a brand (historical romance) and I have a brand (historical romance) and if I should turn in to them a manuscript that was anything else, they would be, shall we say, less than pleased. So write the book you promised them. 

Barbour Editor, Annie Tipton & Erica
2.    Meet your deadlines 

As mentioned above, publishing houses and editors work to a schedule. Lots of people, not just your editor, are counting on you to deliver the completed manuscript when promised. However, it is the editor who catches the flack from marketing, sales, publicity, printing, copy editing, cover art, etc. when you are late. Editors lose sleep. A sleep-deprived and pressured editor, when deciding to whom they will issue the next contract, is more likely to give it to the author who has consistently met the deadlines. 

***Bonus points for turning in a quality manuscript ahead of deadline.***

Editors understand that life happens, and that there can be legitimate reasons for not making a deadline, but as much as possible, follow through on the promise you made when signing your contract. Deliver the goods on time. Which brings us to the next point.

Erica with Barbour Senior Editor Rebecca Germany
3.    Communicate – no dead air

When I received my first contract back at the 2008 ACFW Conference, I met with my brand new editor, JoAnne Simmons. I don’t remember a lot about that meeting (I was still riding high in euphoria) but I do remember asking her one question. 

“What is one thing your new authors do that you wish they wouldn’t?”

The one thing she said, and which was seconded by another editor, Rebecca Germany, who was there at the time, was that authors feel they can’t or shouldn’t communicate too much with their editor. They didn’t want to be a problem child.

While there is some truth to that—you don’t want to bombard your editor with emails about the minutiae of your life—it far worse NOT to communicate with your editor about issues related to your manuscript and contract. If you are struggling to meet a deadline, if you don’t understand an editorial comment, if you don’t like your cover art, etc. yet you never say so, how are they going to be able to help?

This is also where an agent is invaluable. Oftentimes, you can talk to your agent first, and they will filter what you’re going through and see if it needs to be passed along to the editor. 

The key here is to communicate and not shut down.

4.    Study the craft

A contract is not a sign that you have made it. A contract is a sign that your growth as a writer needs to continue. Your editor will appreciate it if they see you are working hard on becoming a better writer, studying the craft, trying new techniques, strengthening your weaknesses and maximizing your strengths. It has been my pleasure to see my editors do the same things. I sat near one of my editors a few years ago in a day-long workshop given by Donald Maass. I was impressed that she would be there in order to help make her writers better, to learn what they were learning.  Read books on writing, read great fiction, hang out at Seekerville and glean all the wisdom and knowledge that is given so freely by these industry pros. Attend conferences and workshops. Never assume you’ve ‘made it’ when it comes to being a writer. Your editor will appreciate both the effort and the humility this kind of studious approach takes.

Author and editor Aaron McCarver with Erica.
5.    Edit your manuscript before you send it in 

 “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” (Robert Graves) is a mantra to which editors around the globe ascribe. And authors should, too. Every manuscript benefits from editing, and it is your job to do as much of this up front before your editor ever sees it as you possibly can.

The editing process will look different for each author, but every manuscript needs editing. I know some authors who edit what they wrote the day before, and then write new stuff. I know some who write the first half to two-thirds of a manuscript, then go back and edit it before writing the ending of the book. Some write the whole thing and send it to readers, some send chapters to crit partners, and some let the manuscript rest between the writing and the editing, but ALL good writers edit their manuscript before they send it in to their publishing house. 

This means you have to use your time wisely. You have to plan to finish the creative draft/first draft/rough draft in plenty of time to allow for your editing process. Clean up your messy draft and make it as beautiful as you can before you turn it in. Your editor will thank you if you don’t make them do the work you should’ve done first.

6.    Gladly and graciously receive edits.

This is a big one. Perhaps as big or bigger than turning in your manuscript on time.

Hopefully, by the time you’ve gotten to the point of receiving a contract, you are used to having others evaluate your work. You’ve entered contests, participated in critiques, had beta readers, something, so when you receive your first edit letter, you are not completely thrown for a loop.

Determine in your heart beforehand that when you receive edits, you will be glad and gracious. Does this mean that it might not sting a little? No. Does it mean you will agree with everything your editor says? No. Does it mean that you absolutely have to take every suggestion and edit? No. Does it mean you should rise up in righteous anger and refuse to alter your precious baby by so much as one dangling participle? NO!

You and your editor are on the same team. You have the same goal. You both want to turn out the best book possible that will resonate with readers and result in a quality product that is a credit to both you and your publishing house. Your editor is a pro who can be objective about your work in a way you could never be.

Your attitude needs to exude humility, eagerness to be part of a team, and a willingness to learn and cooperate. This will make your editor VERY happy.

Keep in mind Proverbs 1: 5-7

A wise man will hear and increase in learning,
And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel,
 To understand a proverb and a figure,
The words of the wise and their riddles.
 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
Fools despise wisdom and instruction.

7.    Do your part with social media

I know. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+, Goodreads, Blogging, Pinterest. SO. MUCH. MEDIA. How do you keep up with all of them?

The straight-truth answer is…you don’t. You can’t. You cannot keep up with every type of social media option available. It is a physical impossibility. You certainly can’t keep up with even the majority and still write books.

But editors in this brave new world of Internet Marketing require their authors to do at least some connecting through social media.

And it’s something of which you shouldn’t be afraid. And happily, most social media is FREE. Take advantage of it.

The key is to find one or two methods that YOU enjoy, and engage readers there. I happen to enjoy blogging and Facebook, but not twitter or instagram so much. So you will find me posting several times per day on Facebook, both my personal page and my author page, and blogging once a week on my group blog Coffee Cups & Camisoles. I’m finding my way around Pinterest and enjoying that, too.

If you work at some form of social media, your editors and publishers will appreciate your efforts and even in some cases come alongside you to help.

So there you have it, seven things guaranteed to make your editors happy people. Happy editors mean happy writers which mean happy readers. And isn’t that what we all want?

Anything else you'd like to add?

To celebrate Seekerville’s Birthday, one commentor will win a copy of Sagebrush Knights. Let us know you want your name in the bonnet!

Author Bio: Erica Vetsch is a transplanted Kansan now residing in Minnesota. She loves history and romance, and is blessed to be able to combine the two in her historical romances. Whenever she’s not immersed in fictional worlds, she’s the bookkeeper for the family lumber business, mother of two, wife to a man who is her total opposite and soul-mate, and an avid museum patron.

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Now available for pre-order!  

Order here

Watch as God lights the way of love, despite the resolve of three Colorado men. A collapsing mine shaft made David Mackenzie blind and bitter, but Karen Worth will not give up on her unconditional love for him. Disillusioned by love, Sam Mackenzie reluctantly escorts a jobless and homeless Eldora Carter plus three orphaned cross country. And just when that challenge seems too overwhelming, an avalanche descends. . . . Pastor Silas Hamilton falls for Willow Starr, an actress bound for New York City. But he’s fairly sure the love between a pastor and an actress could never survive. . .could it?

Order Here

Through nine historical romance adventures, readers will journey along with individuals who are ready to stake a claim and plant their dreams on a piece of the great American plains. While fighting land disputes, helping neighbors, and tackling the challenges of nature the homesteaders are placed in the path of other dreamers with whom romance sparks. And God has His hand in orchestrating each unique meeting.

(Note this collection also features Mary Connealy, Pam Hillman, and Ruth Logan Herne!)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Joy of Rejection

with guest Virginia Carmichael. (aka Mary Jane Hathaway).

Hello, everybody! I’m so excited to be back in Seekerville, one of my favoritest places in the cyber world! Today I thought it would be fun to talk about the joy of rejection. (Okay, that’s a bit of false advertising but I had to get your attention somehow.) 

Now that you’re all here and enjoying Helen’s coffee, I can tell you that nobody really feels great when they get rejected. Rejection stinks. Rejection is the armpit of the writing life. I could be perfectly happy not ever getting rejected again. But life doesn’t work that way so let’s try to see if we can turn it into something useful. Not that any of you excellent writers have any experience with rejection, of course. So, we’ll talk about MY experiences with rejection and you can just nod along.

 (Before we begin, I want to say all pictures are of my kitchen fails. I thought they would be a fun illustration to our topic.)

REVIEWS Or “Free Writing Advice”

 Some writers say not to read reviews, while others read all their reviews. Some don’t respond to reviews, while others respond to every one. Some writers don’t even write reviews for fear of a conflict of interest. But let’s pretend you’re like myself and you like to go on Amazon to read through the reviews. Even though I don’t always like what I read, the really specific negative reviews can change my writing for the better, and I’ll explain why.

First, we’re not talking about those one stars that we can disregard out of hand. You know the ones. “This is the world’s worst book and the writer must not have graduated from second grade. I bet she/he has a unibrow, types with her elbows and eats with her hands.” (All misspelled, of course.) And I don’t mean the two stars that say how the book had a great plot and good characters but the reader just didn’t connect with any of it. Neither of those reviews will help us, really, unless we haven’t had our “one star party” in which case, break out the cake!

 A great negative review will be specific in what the reader didn’t like, and why. Try to take a step back emotionally and see if their rejection can help you be a better writer. For example, let’s use a few things reviewers have said about my books.

"The bad guys never got what was coming to them. I loved the ending, but I needed some kind of closure.” Ahhhh, I thought it was clear what had happened to the antagonist, but maybe it wasn’t. I filed this comment away, but two weeks later there was a similar review. 

“I loved the proposal and the happy ever after, but I wanted (the thief) to get arrested and go to jail!” Uh-oh. That’s two unrelated reviewers who didn’t get satisfaction from the ending. I was so focused on the happy ever after, that I dropped the ball on being VERY clear about what was done to get justice for the heroine. 

 I was gearing up to revise this portion of Emma, Mr. Knightley and Chili-Slaw Dogs when Beth Adams from Howard Books contacted me about selling the rights to the series. So when the time came to revise, I made sure that justice was served, along with a few other things readers had mentioned, like the ending feeling too rushed. (Funny, one reviewer said, “It’s like the author was on a deadline”. Nope. I made that mess all by myself, but I made sure to rewrite and revise the ending in a way that responded to those negative reviews.)

“I loved the hero, but I don’t think the heroine compromised enough at the end. It takes two to make a happy marriage.” Usually I’d brush off this type of comment because women are traditionally the ones who give up a full time job to raise kids, give up promotions to move with their husbands, leave their long-term employment to care for the family, and generally defer their dreams in favor of everyone else in the vicinity and most readers are expecting the heroine to conform. But I glanced back through the book and realized there was a scene where the heroine doesn’t verbally acknowledge the hero’s sacrifice. That was really an oversight on my part and because of the review, I read it in a whole new way. I went back and tweaked the scene, uploading the new version in a few minutes. (That, my friends, is one of the beauties of self publishing. When I see typos in my traditionally published books, it’s too bad, so sad. Nothing I can do. But if you have access to the digital files and CreateSpace files, these issues can be fixed in minutes.)

Also, if you’re planning on writing more than one book, you can look for themes in negative reviews. Knowing what readers really don’t like can help make your next book a better experience for them. Or, if you’re completely sure about how you wrote it, a theme in negative reviews might point you in the direction of a branding problem or something else that has led the readers to expect something other than your book.

“Why does everyone have to start out hating each other in every romance I read?” This was a comment in a review for Leaving Liberty. The first time I read it, I shook my head. OF COURSE, all romances don’t start that way. But the more I looked, the more I saw, especially in my own books. There’s a difference between creating conflict, and making the main characters dislike each other so intensely you can’t see how they’ll ever get together. Coincidentally, it was super fun to write Emma, Mr. Knightley and Chili-Slaw Dogs because the main characters are best friends. I had to write a believable conflict that didn’t involve personality clashes, because they got along just fine. In subsequent books, I’ve kept this comment in mind, making sure the hero/heroine don’t hate each other on sight. I think it makes for a more believable romance and certainly makes me work harder as a writer.


 Now, most agent and publisher rejections I’ve received had no information whatsoever past the “no thanks” sort of thing. If they knew what was wrong with the book (besides just not being right for them), they didn’t have time to explain. But every now and then, someone would scribble a little note on the form letter.

In 2010, I sent an early draft of Pride, Prejudice and Cheese Grits to a small publisher. They specialized in Southern literature, so I thought we might be a good fit. The manuscript had won two contests and finaled in two more (under a different title) so I knew it had potential. The rejection I received said something like “fun, but too wordy”. 

I was aghast. Too wordy? How could a book be too wordy? What did that even mean? I chewed on that for several weeks, going over and over the chapters I’d sent. After a while, I realized that it really could be trimmed a bit, especially since the genre (contemporary romance) wasn’t known for long stretches of prose. I had read craft books that preached the need to “murder your darlings” but it wasn’t until that off-hand rejection note that I realized that my writing had to match the genre. If I wanted to write literary fiction a la Neil Gaiman, I could ramble on for pages without action, but that wasn’t going to work with this book. (I’m not saying there isn’t any room for prose or that I skip all description whatsoever. It just needs to fit the type of book. And this book didn’t get 500 pages to lay out the scene.) 

In my latest Mary Jane Hathaway book (The Pepper in the Gumbo), I experimented with the possibility of being wordy AND writing a romance. I knew it would be a bigger book. I aimed for about 220 pages, as usual, but didn’t edit until I looked back from the very end, which came in at over 370 pages. It was a really fun exercise in “being wordy”. I still had to cut lots of words and scenes, but it was great to see how my writing style changed (and I hope, matured). I used my freedom to write longer , more complete scenes. I’ve never been good at writing short, so this was a wonderful way to stretch out and really put the story on the page the way I wanted it. I may not always write 370 page books, but I felt good while working on it, as if being “too wordy” might just be my natural style. That’s a big issue if I’m thinking of writing a book every two months. My timelines for book releases and my work schedule changed a bit after this book. I had more fun writing a longer book, which may mean fewer books, but more enjoyment for me (and the reader, I hope).

 So, in this case, that rejection from 5 years ago also led to an experiment that taught me more about my personal writing “comfort zone”, and how it shaped my plans for this coming year. 

"What kind of book would YOU say this is?” Before I contracted with an agent, I had a phone conversation with a very nice agent who gave me lots of advice. She never offered representation (probably because I really had no idea what I needed or wanted or where I was going with this writing thing) but she gave me something invaluable: an epiphany. See, I had written this book that I loved, but I didn’t really know how to describe it. Sure, I could give the elevator pitch and the plot and the tag line. But I didn’t know who might publish it or how they would market it. I didn’t know that was part of my job. (Oh, stop laughing. I was just a baby writer!)

 I thought over her question for a long time and realized that the only place Pride, Prejudice and Cheese Grits would fit was in the romance genre. I was shocked and a little bit horrified. I had considered myself more of a literary fiction person. There was something faintly embarrassing about being a “romance author”. By this point I had written two other books and when I looked at them with a clear eye, I realized… YUP, these were romances. They weren’t the classic set up, but the story hinged on the romance in every one. I had to come to terms with the ugly truth. I WAS A ROMANCE AUTHOR. Scary stuff, my friends. 

When I wrote Persuasion, Captain Wentworth and Cracklin’ Cornbread  (releasing November 11th! )I tackled a very serious subject (racism in the American South, on both sides) but I made sure to check in every few scenes. Is the romance front and center? I get more than 300 pages, but the side plots and supporting characters can only add to the romance, or it will be more literary fiction. I knew it was going to be heavily branded as a romance, so it was important to keep the emotions of the hero and heroine front and center while writing.

 I’m sure you all know which genre your book is (unless it’s under that giant umbrella of general fiction) but if not, now is the time to narrow it down. If you’re going to sell your book to a traditional publisher, you’ll need to know which editor might enjoy working on your project. If you’re self publishing, you’ll need to know which types of readers to target when you market it. You have a little more room if you write YA because you can write a mystery/romance/sci fi/ whatever under that genre, but otherwise be very clear about where you’ll find your readers.

I would never tell anyone to change their book to fit a genre, but if your book would fit perfectly in the thriller genre if you cut out that pretty description of a sunset every chapter, you might think about it. If it would be a solid romance without that minor murder plot that starts in chapter ten and ends in chapter fourteen, you might consider it. Then again, it maybe be absolutely perfect, just the way it is, genre mash up and all.  Just consider the idea.

 BETA READERS/ CRITIQUE GROUPS or “Give Your Readers a Map”

  We’ve all heard about constructive criticism. When we give our writing to a critique group or beta reader, we hope that what we get back is something we can use. Even if they hate the entire shebang, we hope there’s something in all the “ugh, burn it” commentary that will help us move forward and make it better. 

“I wasn’t sure why her brother was so against her plan.”  Or “It seemed like the villain came out of nowhere.” Or “Why is the boss against her?” This isn’t technically a rejection, but when you’re really hoping someone understands your book and they say it doesn’t make sense, it can feel pretty close. But this kind of comment is a great time to make sure every character’s actions have a clear motivation- especially the ones who are working contrary to your character’s goals. In my historical Purple Like the West, the heroine’s father was clearly the villain. The more I thought about the beta reader’s comments, the more I realized I had dropped the ball. We’re told to keep backstory to a minimum, but without any, the reader doesn’t understand why the whole world is against our delightful, honorable heroine!

“Why didn’t he just tell her (big secret)?” or “This wasn’t really believable.” Ooooh, this is a killer. When you’ve written an edge-of-your-seat scene, you hope the readers are swept up in the tension and the drama. You really, really don’t want them to be shaking their heads and wishing someone would just “talk it out”. As much as it hurts, this comment can bring us back to motivation. There has to be a reason the characters can’t say what they want or do what they want. No matter how emotionally powerful the scene is, it won’t hold up without a water-tight excuse for not clearing the air. In my first historical, All The Blue of Heaven, the heroine holds a secret close about what happened during the Great Quake, and how she came to be injured. After a beta reader mentioned that the hero and heroine seemed to confide all sorts of things in each other EXCEPT that, I decided to move that scene closer to the middle and carry the story past her revelation. That off-hand criticism made the book much stronger in the end.

 So, these are just a few areas a writer can be rejected. If we have to deal with rejections, why not turn it into a positive experience? (Beside the “one star” cake parties, which are hugely fun, but can add serious inches to the writerly bottom.)  

 If you’re brave enough, I’d love to hear how a rejection hit you hard… and how you grabbed it by the lapels and gave it your best Clint Eastwood impression. Or how you folded that rejection letter into a nifty pencil holder for your desk. Or how you took ALL your rejection letters and crumpled them up and put them in the attic, whereby cutting your heating costs 37%. 

 Or, if you haven’t had any rejections, feel free to share your most encouraging quote like:

 “A lot of people ask me, 'How did you have the courage to walk up to record labels when you were 12 or 13 and jump right into the music industry?' It's because I knew I could never feel the kind of rejection that I felt in middle school. Because in the music industry, if they're gonna say no to you, at least they're gonna be polite about it.”  Taylor Swift

Or “Nobody told me how hard it was going to be to get published. I wrote four novels that nobody wanted, sent them out all over, collected hundreds and hundreds of rejection slips.” Jerry Spinelli, who won the Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee, one of his fifteen acclaimed children’s books.

  I’m giving away THREE paper copies of Emma, Mr. Knightley and Chili Slaw Dogs and THREE paper copies of my latest Love Inspired release A Home For Her Family (October 1st). Also, THREE digital copies of my latest Mary Jane Hathaway book The Pepper in the Gumbo, releasing October 28th! Winners announced in the Weekend Edition.

Virginia Carmichael is an award-nominated writer of Christian fiction and a home schooling mom of six young children who rarely wear shoes. She holds degrees in Linguistics and Religious Studies from the University of Oregon and lives with her habanero-eating husband, Crusberto, who is her polar opposite in all things except faith. They've learned to speak in short-hand code and look forward to the day they can actually finish a sentence. In the meantime, Virginia thanks God for the laughter and abundance of hugs that fill her day as she plots her next book. She also writes under the pen name of Mary Jane Hathaway and loves to meet readers on her facebook page of Pride, Prejudice and Cheese Grits.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

3 Sisters on Writing: 7 Simple Strategies for Making the Dream a Reality

with guests Shirlee McCoy, Sara K. Parker and Mary Ellen Porter

Thanks so much for inviting us to help celebrate Seekerville’s seventh year!

In case you’re wondering—yes, we are actual, honest to goodness, raised together in the same home sisters!  Sisters who, coincidentally, all shared a common dream: to see our stories in print.

And now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, you’re probably wondering – How did you do it?  Has your family discovered a magic pill for writing success? A secret recipe to getting published?

If only there were magic pills or secret family recipes! Like all writers, we have hectic lives with demands outside of our writing careers. Each of us has had to carve out time from very full schedules to make our dream a reality. But time is only part of the equation. We’ve each adopted a few simple strategies that have helped us achieve our writing dreams, and today we’d like to share some of those with you.

Shirlee celebrating with Mom at RWA 2014.

Upcoming Release:  

Her Christmas Guardian, December 2014, Love Inspired Suspense 

1. Learn to Say Yes. 

It may seem that if we want to have vibrant writing careers, we should be willing say no to things that pull us away from our stories. While that is true, I’ve discovered that ‘yes’ is also a powerful tool for success. A hermit by nature, I would happily spend every minute of my time at home. If given a choice of dinner out or a night in front of my computer, I’d take the computer every time.  It’s relationships, though, that build the kind of stories we write, and it’s strong characterization that makes those stories come to life. The key to developing those strong characters? For me, that lies in understanding the people around me, hearing their life stories, learning their heartaches and their joys. Over the years, I’ve discovered that my stories become stagnant, my characters dull if I don’t say yes to the little things that build healthy relationships. Whether it’s saying yes to a cup of coffee or a walk through a field at dusk, time away from the computer clears the mind and allows the words to flow. So, practice your ‘no’ but practice ‘yes,’ too, and use those moments, those sweet minutes of time that you look into another person’s eyes and see her heart, to write something beautiful. 

2. Adapt to Your Circumstances. 

As a busy homeschool mom, I’ve found that a rigid writing schedule doesn’t always work for me. Creativity, after all, doesn’t wait for a scheduled time. I’m driven by a daily word count goal, rather than a daily designated time and place in which to write. I almost always meet my word count because my laptop is my nearly constant companion. Several of my friends joke that they have difficulty recognizing me when I suddenly appear in their midst without my trusty computer! I’ve written while on planes, in hotel lobbies, on the bus, in the basement of a creepy old building. I wrote while in China adopting our youngest daughter. Circumstances of our lives will not change to suit our writing schedules. We must adapt our thought processes, allow ourselves to embrace the circumstances and seasons we’re in, and write wherever and whenever we have a few moments to do so. 

Sara hiking at Inks Lake with her kids and dogs. 
Hubby's taking the pic!

Debut: Undercurrent, January 2015, Love Inspired Suspense

3. Toughen Up.

If I’d learned this lesson sooner, it may have saved me, oh, about twelve years of lost writing time. Being a writer is exciting, but it’s also tough, and truthfully, you need pretty thick skin. I received my first rejection on a manuscript in 2003. I really hope the editor burned that manuscript, but at the time, I was crushed and decided that perhaps I wasn’t cut out for fiction writing after all. For a while, I enjoyed writing for a couple of local newspapers and a few magazines, but six years later, I tried fiction again. An editor with Love Inspired Suspense requested my manuscript, and again – rejection. Another five years passed before my sister Shirlee was able to convince me to try again, and this time, instead of a rejection letter, I got an offer! Every rejection brings you closer to your dream, but only if you learn from it and move on. Take a day, a week even, to regroup. Then, sit yourself down, open up that dauntingly empty first page, and try again.

4. Simplify Your Routine.

I love to cook. I especially love to try new recipes. But cooking creative meals for the family takes a lot of time that I don’t seem to have lately. At my husband’s suggestion, I have built a couple easy-meal days into our weekly menu. My kids’ favorite is Mystery Night.  It’s fun for them because they get to choose and make their own meals, and it’s a mystery for me, because I’m never sure what strange concoction will end up on their plates. But mealtime isn’t the only part of my life I’ve simplified. Several months ago, my husband and I took a hard look at extracurricular activities, volunteer positions, and recurring obligations, and we prayerfully made some big changes. I’ve always loved to have my hands in many pots, so to step back from several activities was a humbling experience for me. I had to admit I could not possibly continue to do it all and still give this writing thing a solid shot. If you can’t find anything to cut from your schedule, I suggest asking someone you trust to look at your life on paper and offer some suggestions. Then, consider their points, pray about your decision, and be brave! 

Mary Ellen with Tank. 
He's no longer a puppy and now weighs 120 pounds.

Debut: Into Thin Air, May 2015, Love Inspired Suspense

5. Make Your Dream Your Priority.

Over the past decade I’ve had numerous ‘great ideas’ that have never come to fruition. Characters that sit silent in my filing cabinet because I never made the time to give them a voice. Why is that? The answer is simple: Because I never made writing a top priority. In fact, I never made it a priority at all. Writing was always the “dream,” the thing I would do for fun, in my spare time. But who really has spare time? I personally work full time, have two very active teenagers, and spend numerous hours each week training with a volunteer search and rescue team. My sister Shirlee told me on numerous occasions that if I just wrote a little every day, eventually my book would be written. Her incessant ‘encouragement’ finally paid off; I established a weekly word-count goal, and then I made that goal my top priority. Sometimes that meant the house was a little messy, the dog got a shorter walk, or we ate leftovers a little more than I’d like. But surprisingly the family survived—even the dog. And the first book got written. Make your dream a reality by making your dream your priority. Nothing less will bring your stories to life.

6. Forget Perfection.

I have a problem. I am a perfectionist. While this trait has helped me gain a measure of success in several areas of my life, writing wasn’t one of them. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that my propensity toward perfection held me back. The first sentence, the first page, the first chapter were never quite good enough for me. My stories were destined to languish, unfinished because I just knew each attempt was not my best work. For my own good, I had to accept that perfection is not attainable. To finish my book I had to train myself not to re-read and re-work what I had written the previous day or week. Instead, I allowed myself to read only the last three or four sentences before delving into a new day of writing. I finally accepted that there are many ways to write the same story, and write it well. A story can always be improved, but it can’t be submitted to a publisher—or sold¬—if it hasn’t been written.  


7. Build a Strong Support System. 

Some people say that the genes for writing must run through our family. We say it is the support and love we’ve received from one another, from our parents, our two other siblings, from our spouses, our kids and our friends that has allowed us the freedom to achieve our dreams. If you’re struggling to find your place in this crazy writing world, seek out people who share your goals and who are as excited and happy for your successes as they are for their own. Don’t look for the most successful, the most prolific, or the most talented. Look for those who are like-minded and who care about you deeply. People who support your dreams and will hound you incessantly until the word count is met, the characters are well-written and the story flows. Plug into a local writer’s group, meet up with other aspiring writers over tea, and start building your support system—it will be invaluable as you navigate your writing career.

We’d love to hear from you. What do you struggle with most when it comes to achieving your writing goals?

Comment below to win a box of writer’s goodies, including: a Starbucks gift card ($15), a Barnes & Noble gift card ($25), a dry-erase calendar with markers, a crockpot cookbook, and the most important of all—chocolate. The winner will also receive a signed copy of Shirlee’s December release, Her Christmas Guardian, and IOUs for Sara’s January release, Undercurrent, and Mary Ellen’s May release, Into Thin Air. Winner announced in the weekend edition!
Follow us on Twitter: @3SistersWrite

 Her Christmas Guardian


Former army ranger Boone Anderson immediately senses danger when he spots Scout Cramer and her precious little girl while holiday shopping. Then two cars suddenly give chase in the parking lot—kidnapping the child. His worst suspicions are confirmed, and professional instincts propel him into action. Having lost his own infant daughter years before, Boone is determined to reunite the beautiful single mother and her missing child. But when a secret from Scout's past finally catches up to her, she must work with her self-appointed guardian to save her daughter. Before the kidnappers cancel Christmas for all of them…permanently.

Mission: Rescue—No job is too dangerous for these fearless heroes



In an instant Kathryn Brooks's idyllic transatlantic cruise turns to terror. It's hard to believe someone has it out for her, yet chandeliers don't explode on their own—and her best friend has gone missing. But Secret Service agent Sam West vows to protect her as every corridor poses a threat and any stranger may be an assailant. With the ship's security providing little assistance, Kathryn puts her trust in Sam. Yet losing her own life is no longer her only fear. As she and Sam strive to stay a step ahead of the enemy, Kathryn worries that by caring for Sam…she's put a target on his back, as well.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

One Editor's Top 7 Revision Notes by Harlequin Senior Editor Victoria Curran

Happy seventh birthday, Seekervillians (if I may call you that)! I’m delighted to be here to help celebrate the occasion. I was pleased to see one of our Harlequin Heartwarming authors, Roz Denny Fox, here a month or two ago, and she discussed a lot of the specifics about our series. Me, I’m thinking in sevens, so I’ve decided to share my top seven recurring revision notes, which are the same whether I’m editing sweet romances, inspirational or something a little hotter.

Disclaimer: I’m deeply aware that I have never written a novel and I have a huge respect for those of you who can create a story that’s thousands of words long and has a beginning, a middle and an end…let alone obstacle and romantic tension and self-motivated characters who take an unpredictable journey to that predictable happy ending!

Heartwarming Romance, October Release
In my 11-plus years at Harlequin, I have some advice I seem to repeat and it relies heavily on seven resources (see how I worked that in again?):

     Robert McKee, STORY
     Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
     Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (which one of my copy editing colleagues tells me is out of date but I refuse to believe her)
     Donald Maas, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook
     Stephen King, On Writing
     Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
     EL James, Fifty Shades of Gray

#1 Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE).

Thank you Renni Browne and Dave King for this invaluable acronym. Trust readers to get the point faster and say what you’re trying to say in much less. It’s more satisfying to get from A to Z without hitting the entire alphabet.

However, I think this is probably a case of not having the time to go back over the books and pare the words and ideas…or to gain objectivity from the work…enough to see the instances where you’ve shown something well and don’t need the accompanying internalization that explains it, or when a scene seems to be active, opening in the middle of something, but then stops to provide the backstory that led to this moment. (I’m big on need-to-know only, please.)

Credenza Pete, one of Victoria's cats...  How much do you love this picture????  How cute is it?
Stinkin' cute!
Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing that it wasn’t until he was finished writing a story that he knew what it was about and then he rewrote it based on the discovery he made by the end of his first draft. At the pace of romance publishing, I’d love to meet the author who has that kind of time!

#2 Never use tummy when stomach will do.

In this Strunk & White rule, the idea is cute word choice can call attention to itself. I am a huge advocate of using words that serve the story rather than pull us out of it to think about the words. (A little brogue goes a long way, as they say in Historicals!) And while we’re at it, I confess I don’t even know what a cliché is anymore. As long as the words and ideas don’t pull me out of the story, they work well.

Heartwarming Romance October release 
#3: Let’s rough your characters up more.

From tracking research our readers have told us: “If you know from the first page the lovers will end up together it spoils the story. There has to be conflict, not too much sweetness…. I hate predictable reads that are flat, lacking in highs and lows.”

Rules #2 and #3 seem to go arm and arm. My authors know I don’t like the term “sweet romance” since, even though it’s recognized in the industry as meaning a romance without sex, in practice it propels writers toward kitten and puppy dog plotting, flowers and sunshine: a polite journey to a predictable happy ending…when we’re looking for stories that make readers wonder how on earth the pair will ever get together. Clean stories need to be as exciting as edgier sexy ones.

I am one of the biggest animal lovers out there, proud caregiver to four cats, but as an editor, I like to see stray kittens or puppies when they have a reason to be in the story beyond their sweet factor.

Will Feral 
A former Superromance author of mine also wrote for Love Inspired and they were some of the darkest, redemptive romances I’ve ever had the pleasure to edit. Yes, please: go there!

#4 Let’s find ways to eliminate the coincidence.

Find the misunderstandings and coincidences and imposed plotting and turn them around so they’re driven by the leads. For instance:

*What if, instead of the ex-boyfriend entering the story near the end to ratchet up the tension (predictable external device usually because inner obstacle is gone), why not let the heroine call him in? Instead of imposing plot on characters, motivate them to provoke the action.

*Currently the hero’s faced with falling off the wagon, thinks about the heroine and how good she is and how much she has changed him…and doesn’t drink. But the heroine sees him in the bar and thinks he drank. This leads to hero not confronting her but leaving town in a petulant reaction to her misunderstanding.  Well, what if the hero did take the drink, and then we cut to the heroine finding him over the empty bottle and him seeing the disappointment in her eyes before she walks out. Then her concerns are real, and the hero must redeem himself in her eyes. Motivation that was surface becomes deeper.

#5 Motivate your characters and then let them act based on those motivations.

Most writers create fresh, interesting characters and an intriguing premise to launch a story…but too often the characters soon cast off the constraints of their motivation and act in ways that are mysterious to them based on their “unexpected” attraction to the other. Well, it may be unexpected to them, but it’s clichéd and predictable to the reader. If a story stays true to the rich characterization, the characters will drive the action and I probably won’t be able to predict each step, which is fantastic!

From our tracking research: “Characters with strong identities/personalities save a story from cliché every time… I prefer it when characters grow through action and reaction rather than too much deep soul searching… “

#6 Is this scene really about what it appears to be about or is there something else going on here?

As McKee tells us, “‘If the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re in deep [trouble].’"…

Writing this, for example: Two attractive people sit opposite each other at the candlelit table, the light glinting off the crystal wineglasses and the dewy eyes of the lovers. Soft breezes billow the curtain. A Chopin nocturne plays in the background. The lovers reach across the table, touch hands, look longingly in each others’ eyes, say, ‘I love you, I love you,”…and actually mean it. This scene…will die like a rat in the road.”

There’s a section in Donald Maas’s book about the tea scene and how, if it’s only there for BFF support and for the heroine to rehash the romance, cut it. But if there’s something else going on between the two characters in that scene, really flesh out what each wants from the other. Because even the BFF needs to want something.

#7 How can we raise the stakes in the romance?

The highest stakes, according to McKee is that by choosing love the hero and heroine stand to lose that one thing they want more than life itself.

I can usually tell what the hero and heroine have to gain in choosing love. It’s much less often I see a strong obstacle to love that takes the entire book to get past. And that’s sometimes when the villain steps in to mess with the hero and heroine, providing the tension and stakes. That’s traditional storytelling. But contemporary romance readers want the tension and stakes to come from between the hero and heroine as much as from the external plotting. They want love to cost the leads and for them to have to struggle to earn the happy ending.

I can’t resist quoting McKee: “Pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little. If a character chooses to tell the truth in a situation where telling a lie would gain him nothing, the choice is trivial, the moment expresses nothing. But if the same character insists on telling the truth when a lie would save his life, then we sense that honesty is at the core of his nature.”

We all know this, right? But that’s where Fifty Shades of Grey taught me a lesson in stakes. In choosing love, the heroine risked death at the hands of a man who warned her he would hurt her, and she has no idea how far he’ll carry that threat. How much harder is it for a contemporary clean romance writer to achieve that level of high stakes!

I’d love to find out from the authors on this blog if you have any advice on how to ratchet up the romantic tension when sex is not an option. And to readers checking in, please tell me if you agree with my editing advice or whether I should read some more how-to-edit books because you want those kitten and puppy dog tummies!

Best wishes,


Ruthy here! 

Victoria, thank you for this gold mine of straightforward information... I love it! 

Folks, feel free to pepper Victoria with questions and/or toss your ideas out there! She's cute, funny and very approachable! This is your chance to explore a fun, different, fresh form of fiction for today's reader... and even though I'm excising KITTENS from all stories, (that's totally untrue, I just wrote some barn kittens into a book... SIGH...) 

I think you'd love working with this woman! 

Coffee's inside, maple cakes and apple fritters, too, and we've got BOOKS
to tempt you into examining Heartwarming more closely! 

Victoria has brought 2 4-packs of Heartwarming Romance's October releases....

and we're offering SEVEN FREE HEARTWARMING E-BOOKS of your choice! Leave a comment (and yes, ask questions!) to have your name thrown into the very clean cat dish!!!  :)

And Victoria, thanks so much for being with us today, and giving us a great look at "Heartwarming" and one of the wonderful editors behind it!