Thursday, May 26, 2016

BELVA PLAIN: She Dared to Change the Face of Jewish Novels

In recognition of Jewish American Heritage Month, I want to share the incredible literary journey of third-generation Jewish American author, Belva Plain (1915-2010). Ms. Plain has been quoted as saying she wrote her first novel, Evergreen, because she’d had her fill of stereotypical Jewish characters who failed to reflect the reality of Jewish life. Published when she was 62, Evergreen became a New York Times bestseller and remained at the top of that coveted list for 41 weeks. During the balance of her 95 years, she penned 22 more novels, all written in longhand, 20 of which also became NYT bestsellers. More than 30 million of them were in print in 22 languages when she died.

Belva Plain graduated with a degree in history from Barnard College and had her first short story published in Cosmopolitan shortly thereafter. She continued to write and submit short pieces to help support her husband's ophthalmology studies until the birth of her three children, after which she devoted her time and energy to raising her family. Only when they had grown and had children of their own did she return to her pen and pad and begin her career as a novelist.

Her books covered a gamut of subjects. Some were historical; Crescent City, for example, takes place in New Orleans during the Civil War years. Others depicted the lives of Jewish people in Europe during the 1930s and 40s. A number of them, however, were contemporary in nature. The 5-book saga of the Werner family is both historical and contemporary; Evergreen, Golden Cup, Tapestry, Harvest, and Heartwood delve deeply into the multigenerational lives, relationships, and secrets of husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, and others of the Werner clan.

Ms. Plain was a master at creating well-rounded characters of depth, characters as noble and as imperfect as we all are, characters who make good decisions and bad—exploring their lives and relationships with a powerful magnifying glass not often utilized by modern authors. She also
tackled sensitive topics that touch many today: Blessings – adoption, Promises – divorce, The Carousel – sexual abuse of children. In all of them, passion abounds; but she steered away from graphic sex scenes.

Her last book, Heartwood, was published after her death. Fittingly, it comes full circle, closing her prolific writing career with the final chapters of the Werner family saga.
Belva Plain was the first author whose books inspired me to write. I loved her feisty characters who rose up from the pages of her stories and invited me into their world. They were so real, so human that I could relate to them as though they were my friends and neighbors.

Do you have a favorite author who inspired you to write? If so, please share with us.

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Who's Telling This Story Anyway?

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee

I’ve heard some fiction authors talk about characters as if the writer is the boss and the characters are employees who do what the boss tells them to do. I’ve heard other authors talk about characters as if the inmates are running the asylum: the writer enters the schizophrenic place in his or her mind where imaginary people appear, and those people say and do things that feel outside the writer’s control.

Just who’s in charge here?

In the instance of characters as employees, sometimes the author has a plan and then changes his or her mind, and the characters follow the new plan. In the instance of characters as instigators, sometimes the author has a plan and then the characters change their minds, because they know that nobody with their characteristics would ever engage in such shenanigans. We sometimes say such characters have minds of their own, but since they live in our minds, aren’t their minds just another corner of ours? Perhaps the subconscious.

Maybe we can take it a step farther, and consider whether we and these characters form part of what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious: the human tendency, as a group, to be disposed to shared experiences and repeated patterns of behavior. In other words, we all share in human nature, so when we dive deep within ourselves for answers, we often find universal wisdom, something all storytellers dip into. We recognize archetypes of humanity and therefore have an innate sense of the way certain character types are likely to respond to certain situations.

That might sound like it takes the magic out of storytelling, but maybe it is the magic: the way the collective experience of human nature can still hold our rapt attention after so many millennia of stories. 

Sometimes authors write stories that seem to come through them as if from some other realm. If we’re lucky, we experience the feeling that the characters we create take on lives of their own. At those moments, the story almost writes itself.

Is that really so strange? After all, it’s not much different from the way we live our lives.

Every moment, life asks us to make choices that can carry us to a variety of destinations, some mundane some interesting. We never know exactly where we’re headed: life or death, love or loss, victory or defeat, peace or battle. Most of the time we may simply get out of bed, work, eat, use the bathroom, exercise, watch Netflix, brush our teeth, and trot back to bed. But one day we might answer a situation with a new decision that leads to the unexpected, uncomfortable, exciting possibility of change.

What if I quit my job and work for myself? What if instead of boarding my flight to the Midwest I switch my ticket to Asia? What if I step on stage and tell that story, sing that song, dance that dance that I never dared before? 

That’s what happens in stories, the “What if?”

We’re each living our own stories, the questions similar to those we ask when we write fiction: just who is running this show? God? Fate? Chaos? Me? I prefer to imagine a dance of all the above, which implies both greater meaning and personal agency. But, in the end, none of that changes the way I choose to tell my story: something happens, I make a choice, which affects the next thing that happens, which is also affected by other people’s choices. Then I make the next choice.

Sometimes I make choices so quickly I’m not fully conscious of them. Yet somehow, between my choices and the events that unfold in response, life takes shape. The bolder my choices, the more engaging my life. The same is true of my characters and their lives. 

What if we trusted that process, allowing our characters’ lives to unfold without wondering who was in charge? What if our fingers just kept moving words across the page and we watched to see what lives those words conjured? What if we trusted in the act of opening ourselves to the possibility that in a story anybody might do anything at any time, expected or unexpected?

I say we let our characters do what they want, and trust that it also happens to be what we want them to do, whether we’re aware of it or not. I say we trust that our characters and ourselves are all in this together.

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s a book editor and writing coach. She was a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Ventura, California.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Things I Didn't Know on My Way to Publication

I wrote my very first book in the year 2000. I had never written anything before other than ad copy for fashion layouts. My spring chicken days had already sprung, and I was a few years away from the age when many people retire. I wrote the book because I read one I thought was terrible. I challenged myself to do a better job almost as a lark, never expecting I’d complete a novel or that writing would become my fourth career.

I thought my story was good, but I knew enough to realize that my technical knowledge, the nuts and bolts of writing, was severely lacking. I sent the book to an editor I found online. His credentials said he’d written forty-two books, and he had, as a ghostwriter for some famous people. His wife was his editor, and she also edited my pages. I got two for the price of one, and they were great. His first email to me after reading the first forty-nine pages of my manuscript was: The story is fantastic; the writing needs work. I was filled with mixed emotions.

So I have the beginnings of a good story, but I can’t write worth … well, you know. The edit they sent me was a primer on not only how to write a novel but how to write. Comments on sentence structure, passive voice, repetition, telling not showing, and backstory filled the margins. They edited that book three times, all for the quoted price. I hired them for three books in total and learned more each time.

Meanwhile, I kept writing my stories, getting older.

After the third edit, I felt like that first book was as good as it could be, so I did what all writers do with dreams of publication: I searched for an agent. And searched. And wrote query letters. Collected rejections, which for some reason I still have.

Back then, a lot of querying was done by post with a self-addressed stamped envelope for their response. Then it changed to email. That made it a lot easier for writers, but it also made it easier for agents to send an automated rejection form or for them to ignore you completely. This went on for six or seven years.

Meanwhile, I kept writing my stories, getting older.

Then a friend called me and told me a writing group called Sisters in Crime was meeting in a city about twenty-five miles from my home.

I went, sat, and listened. Can’t remember if I said anything, but knowing me I probably did. I went again the next month, and two writers, Ellis Vidler and Linda Lovely, asked me if I wanted to critique with them. I was beside myself thrilled. They were real pros and taught me so much, especially the one thing that my editor didn't know because he wrote non-fiction: point of view. In other words, head hopping. I remember Ellis and Linda explaining point of view to me at one of our many lunches. It took me a while to comprehend it. I’m surprised they didn’t give up on me.

I finally got an agent who loved everything I wrote. She sent my manuscripts out to publishers, received more rejections. And more. This went on for a couple of years.

Meanwhile, I kept writing my stories, getting older.

In hindsight, one thing I would do differently is write and pitch a series first. (Who knew?) Mind Games, the first book in my Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, was my third or fourth book. Until that time, I was querying stand-alones, which I believe are harder to sell because there's no follow-up to keep a reader reading or gain author loyalty. Maybe if I were Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott the story would be different, but of course I’m not.

Impatient, I thought the best way to get published was to write an erotic romance for an ebook publisher. Guess what? It worked.

I wrote three, got all three published writing under a pseudonym, and now have the rights back to all of them. During that time, I saw some writer friends signing contracts, some with small presses, some with the big five—at that time six. Publication date, two years in the future.

Two years is a long time. Have I mentioned that by this time I was old?

So I said the hell with it. If no one wants to publish my books, I’ll do it myself. So that’s what I did. I had learned how to use Photoshop during my third career creating brochures for my business, and my first career was as an illustrator. Surely I could create my own covers. Another learning curve, but I managed to do it. Then with the help of one of my Sisters in Crime mentors, Ellis Vidler, who’s also a dynamite editor, I learned how to format my novels for both ebooks and print. The beauty of that is once you’re ready, Amazon is ready for you. No two-year wait.

Eight suspense novels and three erotic romances later, I’m still here and still writing my stories. I wonder if I’d have been as prolific if I'd gotten a traditional publishing contract. I do know that deadlines and the constant requirement to produce would have made me a nervous wreck. Writing at my own pace, answering only to myself, works for me. By the way, the first book I wrote was one of the last books I published, thirteen years later.

I wrote and rewrote Threads, never feeling it was good enough, until I did.

What other profession lets you to work in your pajamas if you want, without makeup, without the perfect hairdo, and have your dog or cat on your lap? It’s been and still is a great ride.

Polly Iyer is the author of seven novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and three books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, and Backlash. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

What is Deep POV?

Just when you think you’ve figured out this thing called Point of View, you get an editor who says “go deeper.” So, what does deep POV mean, anyway?

Basically, it is taking the author completely out of the story, leaving the reader inside the head of the character. As readers we want to experience this character’s adventures vicariously. We want to see, smell, hear, taste and touch the same things the character does. The character is interpreting the story for us just like we interpret what happens in our lives. That means that in deep POV even the “less exciting” parts like description become exciting because they show emotion and personality.

Part of going deeper into POV is the “show versus tell” technique. Because we want to become Indiana Jones or Bridget Jones or whoever we’re reading about, we don’t want to be TOLD that Indiana is afraid of snakes. We want to FEEL his fear, to taste it, smell it. We don’t want to be told that Bridget is lonely, we want to be lonely too. Use the five senses liberally.

Drop the taglines (he said, she whispered etc). Example: “Why do you insist I make that speech?” she asked. Mary’s hands shook and she knew she would have butterflies. (Drop the “she asked” and go with the action or reaction.)

Weed out the thought and sense words. If we are in Mary’s head, we know she’s thinking (again no tagline needed). Likewise with words like “felt”, “saw”, “watched” and “knew”. We don’t need to be told that she felt her hands shake or that she has butterflies—describe how those butterflies feel inside her. She watched a smile spread across Dick’s face. Simply: A smile spread across Dick’s face.

So, don’t create distance between your reader and your character by inserting your (telling) self. Let them hear the character’s voice. Let them feel her fear/joy/confusion etc. It’s personal and intimate. Readers will form a stronger connection to the characters and then they will have to know what happens to them, so they’ll keep turning the pages and wanting to read your next book.

Do you have any more tips on creating Deep POV?

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona where she blogs, teaches writing, and edits. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. The next book in the series is Dare to Dream, and a non-fiction book Cowgirl Up! A History of Rodeo Women, is also available. Heidi has a degree in journalism and a certificate in fiction writing.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Taking Ownership

Photo credit: Owen Moore
Ownership manifests itself in many ways.

Take for instance a cold. Not long ago, someone I knew had one. When speaking about it, I referred to it as her cold. Then, when I soon caught the germ, my husband actually called it my cold. Hearing him say that at first seemed strange, until I realized the cold's ownership had now been transferred to me, along with the responsibilities of trying to get better and not sharing the germ with others.

Here are a few examples of how a writer can take ownership:
  • A writer needs to own up to mistakes. It would be wonderful to believe every word we write is perfect, but, actually, that's not really the case. We need to own up to our mistakes, learn from them, and polish our prose. We can do this by either hiring an editor, or at least by submitting our work to some darn good beta writers.
  • Okay, the book is done. Before it's released, although in the U.S. original works have been automatically copyrighted since 1978, it doesn't hurt to also take ownership of your printed and/or electronic book by placing the copyright symbol on one of its first pages to tell the world you own the rights to the amazing words you've written. To see some exceptions, check Wikipedia.
  • Be careful not to be too exclusive. The strange thing about taking ownership of our books is that often in order to do so, we need to share blurbs, descriptions, and excerpts with others in order to entice readers to read our books. Sometimes, it may even mean giving away free copies for advertisement purposes.
    My thriller, Two Wrongs, is currently perma-free, and you're welcome to nab your free copy.
Can you think of other ways authors take ownership, or maybe you'd like to expand on something I've mentioned.

Experience Morgan Mandel's diversity and versatility. Check Out Her Standalone Romantic Comedy,  Girl of My Dreams, the romantic comedy series, Her Handyman, and A Perfect Angel. For Mystery/Suspense, try Killer Career or Two Wrongs. For the small town of Deerview series: Hailey's Chance: Will Baby Make 3? and Christmas   Carol.Websites:Morgan Mandel.Com Morgan Does Chick Lit.ComTwitter:@MorganMandel

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Encounters with Книги

Дом Книги (Dom Knigi—the House of Books) - Moscow
Recently my editor told me translation rights for the first three books of my Daisy Dalrymple mysteries have been sold to a Russian publisher. As I studied Russian (50 years ago!), I’m hoping that not only do they follow through and print them, but that they send me copies, which doesn’t always happen. I would definitely attempt to brush up my Russian to read them—or at least bits of them.

If you’ve never been to Russia, you probably don’t know how incredibly generous the Russian people are. You have to be careful about what you admire, because they’ll give it to you. Before I realized this, I was given several classical LPs and some books. (Both were subsidized in the USSR.)

I still have all but one—a tiny volume, about 1 1/4" by 2", of poetry. I mentioned it to an academic librarian friend who was excited about having recently received a box of miniature books. She looked it up in the World Library Catalog. She discovered only one or two other libraries possessed it. I decided to give it to hers, as there was little chance I’d ever try to read it. The print was way too small!

One of my favourite stories from my youth is about books and Russia, though not Russian books. I went to the USSR twice, with student groups. On one of those trips, among my fellow-travellers (not in the Commie sense) was Sean, a young Irishman. When we reached the border, everyone had to get out, not only for customs but because the Russian railways’ gauge is wider than standard European so we had to change trains.

And go through Customs, in a large shed populated by grim-faced Soviet agents. Actually, Westerners tend to see all Russians as rather grim—the easy American smile of greeting is just not part of their culture. If you get a smile from a Russian, he really means it.

Customs men rummaged through our suitcases. One emerged from Sean’s with half a dozen books in his hands. He looked through the lurid covers, pausing at each one as Sean grew paler and paler. They were a set of paperback James Bond books. The agent reached From Russia With Love—and stopped.

He beckoned to the nearest man, who came over. They studied the cover together, flipped through the book, consulted each other, and went off with all the books to show them to—presumably—the boss. Several more gathered around to take a look. Sean was green by that time.

We wondered if they’d arrest just him or our entire group... But they returned all the books to him. He packed them up and we went on our way.

On the way home, in the boat-train from Dover to London, Sean disappeared for a while. When he rejoined us, he was wearing a full Red Army uniform, including the cap with the Red Star. He had swapped the James Bond books for it.

What with one thing and another, I would love to see some of my own books in Russian. I wonder if they’ll change my name, as a Czech publisher did (to Carola Dunnová), or leave it as is, like the Polish translator. At least I’ll be able to tell, unlike the Hebrew version of one of my Regencies, where I could only read one page—the copyright page, where they had spelled my name wrong!

If they invited me to a launch party at Дом Книги (Dom Knigi—the House of Books) in Moscow, I’d go like a shot.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies. The paperback edition of Superfluous Women is coming out in June.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Writers Write

SHEEP #1: Is that you?

WRITER: Are you talking to me?

SHEEP #1: Yes.

SHEEP #2: Where have you been?

SHEEP #1: You’re rather late.


SHEEP #2: Time to write!


SHEEP #1: But what?

SHEEP #2: You're not a goat. Stop butting.

WRITER: Writing is hard.

SHEEP#2: Are you a writer?


SHEEP #2:  Then write.

WRITER: It’s not that easy.

 SHEEP #3: Yes, it is. Write.

 SHEEP #2: It doesn’t have to be perfect.

 SHEEP #1: Let’s be honest, it won’t be perfect. It will never be perfect.

 SHEEP #2: But it will be words. You can work with words.

 SHEEP # 1: As a wise sheep once said, you can’t edit an empty page. 

SHEEP #2: Who said that?

WRITER: Wasn’t it you?

SHEEP #2: It probably was. I’m very wise.

SHEEP #1: And humble.

SHEEP #2: Yes. Yes, this is true.

WRITER: But I want it to be perfect. So I write the same paragraph over and over. I never get beyond Chapter One.

SHEEP #2: That isn’t writing. That’s going around in circles. You’ll get dizzy.

SHEEP #1: Writing moves forward. As a wise king once said “Start at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, and then stop.”

SHEEP #2: Who said that?

SHEEP #1: I just did.

WRITER: But who was the wise king?

SHEEP #2: It may have been the King of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. 

WRITER: I love that book. 

SHEEP #1: Yes. It made us look at white rabbits a whole new way.

SHEEP #2: It also proved our theory that white animals are wise. 

SHEEP #1: And that they can talk.

WRITER: You had a theory that animals could talk?

SHEEP #1: That’s not the point.

WRITER: What’s the point?

SHEEP #2: That writers write.

SHEEP #1: Go and write. Rejoice in the words. They don’t have to be good words. They just have to be words.

SHEEP #3: Spill them onto the page. Be reckless.

WRITER: Really?

SHEEP #2: It’s spring. It’s the time for planting. How can you harvest anything if you don’t plant? 

SHEEP #3: Start at the beginning, continue on to the end, and then stop.

SHEEP #1: Or start at the end.

SHEEP #2: Or start in the middle.

ALL THE SHEEP: But start.

Elspeth Futcher is an author and playwright. Thirteen of her murder mystery games and two audience-interactive plays are published by Her A Fatal Fairy Tale, Deadly Ever After and Curiouser and Curiouser are among the top-selling mystery games on the Internet.  Elspeth's newest game, Nice But Naughty is now available from her UK publisher, Red Herring Games, as is her Great British Bump Off and Once Upon a Murder. Elspeth's 'writing sheep' are a continuing feature in the European writers' magazine Elias and also appear on this blog from time to time. Connect with her on Twitter at @elspethwrites or on Facebook at Elspeth Futcher, Author.


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