Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Words

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee

A word is not reality. It’s a metaphor for reality. So, in a way, every word is a story. Just open a dictionary and look up any word: pronunciation, part of speech, definitions, usage, origin, and whatever else your dictionary tells you. Let’s try it with “sentient” and the American Heritage Dictionary:

Sentient (sĕnshənt, -shē-ənt) adj. 1) Having sense perception; conscious: “The living knew themselves just sentient puppets on God’s stage” (T.E. Lawrence). 2) Experiencing sensation or feeling. [Latin sentiēns, sentient-, present participle of sentīre, to feel…]

According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of “sentient” was in 1632.

Every word has a history. Each word we personally know also has a history within us. To me, “sentient” is the story of HAL 9000, the self-aware computer who killed astronaut Frank Poole and tried to kill David Bowman, in the book and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Sentient” calls up the chilling moment when Dave retrieves Frank’s body from space and HAL won’t let him back into the ship:

Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Dave: What's the problem?
HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave: What are you talking about, HAL?
HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.
HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.

As storytellers, we use words to create sequences with beginnings, middles, and ends. We use words to define patterns of desire, conflict, and change. We use words to express the rhythms we feel in our bodies. 

At one writing workshop I took, the instructor told us her baby was only a few months old but already knew what a story was, reacting differently to the rhythms of storytelling than to other types of speech. Surely she hit on the reason I love stories: before I ever understood what anyone was saying, I knew the rising and falling tones of a bedtime tale, the feel of warm arms around me, heartbeat in one ear, words in the other, sensations that told me I was loved.

Sometimes I turn to fellow writers, teachers, and mentors for advice on craft. Often I read literature, sending the words of great authors tumbling through my mind until they break down into building blocks I can rearrange into new stories. 

But in the end, the stories I tell are up to me.

I’ve found that the magic of storytelling is in surrendering, not to anyone else’s notions, but to the words in my head. I believe this: my subconscious knows better than I how to tell a story. Only it can call up all the words I’ve stored through a lifetime of reading, watching movies and TV, listening to radio, and talking. Sometimes the best writing strategy is no strategy at all, simply the willingness to let the subconscious take over.

Writers wander alone into our mysterious heads not because we’re crazy—though some may be—but because it’s the only place to find the words we seek. We wander alone into our wild hearts, not because we crave loneliness, but because it’s the only way to feel the rhythm that is ours and ours alone. I have a voice, and the only way to hear its uniqueness, distinct from all others, is to sing alone in the dark.

If you cannot stand loneliness, find a writing group. If you need support, go where other writers are. If you need feedback, seek mentors. But here’s my two cents: ultimately, only your own instinct can decide which words to use to sing your song. Don’t wait for others to inspire you. Don’t wait for inspiration at all. I suggest there’s no better reason to tell your story than a simple love of words.

I’m not saying I want nothing more. I want plenty. But before everything else, comes the words.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.” – Genesis 1:1

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 TimesDenver PostConnotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was 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 Denver.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Does Genre Matter?

In my book, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, I discuss the difference
between premise (the story concept) and the promise you make by the genre you pick.

I explored the theme further in an earlier post: Keeping Your Promise.

Writers unleashed in the independent publishing arena might feel they can fire genre expectations entirely since they no longer have to tick boxes for agents or editors. They may feel they no longer need to write the dreaded synopsis.

Not so. Why? Reader expectation still matters.

Let's say you go to a new restaurant with friends. It isn't your usual chain restaurant. Unless you are a foodie and love to experiment, you hope to find something on the menu that is recognizable. Something you know you will enjoy, perhaps a good burger.

When you order a burger you have certain basic expectations: a bun, some kind of meat patty, and condiments. There are millions of variations of burgers, from tofu and soy meat, to bunless burgers for those cutting carbs. Unless these variations are listed on the menu, you expect them to bring the beef. If you receive your burger and it doesn't remotely resemble what you wanted, you may force yourself to eat it. Maybe you'll enjoy it anyway. Maybe you'll loathe it and go online and complain about the restaurant's poorly written menu and bizarre food options.

One thing is certain: if you didn't enjoy the dining experience, you won't go back.

I am not saying that you can't mix genres, twist genres, or invent your own. What I highly recommend is that you make a promise to your reader through the dreaded "synopsis" which will turn into your story blurb. From one sentence "log lines" to the paragraphs on the cover, it is only fair to warn your reader if you are veering from the norm. Tell them which way the story is weighted. Is the core story a mystery with a little romance thrown in or a romance with a little mystery thrown in? Readers have distinct preferences.

Discussions are ongoing about rating labels for books much like rating labels for television and gaming. Not everyone wants to read explicit sex or gory details. For some, torture takes the thrill out of a Thriller.

You should also consider trigger warnings. There are certain topics that a reader does not want to accidentally stumble across if they have an aversion or sensitivity to it: war, gruesome details of explicit sex, murder, torture, rape, incest, child abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, etc. Some argue that these things happen and people should write about them to bring them into the light. I'm not against that. Those stories need to be told if we ever hope to change things. But the trigger issue is critical to the readers affected by them.

Don't blindside your audience.

It is bad business to make false or misleading promises to your readers. I guarantee that anger and disgust drive more people to post reviews than pleasure. Cause someone pain and they will strike back.

The other key point is that certain genres sell better than others. You may be tempted to skew your back blurb to attract a specific following, say Science Fiction. Beware an angry hard core Science Fiction fan if you serve them a light-hearted erotic romp through space.

They have virtual light sabers and know how to use them.

Diana Hurwitz
 is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Tale of ?Two? Genres

I’ve been writing “genre fiction” for 36 years. I began with romance, then moved on to mystery.

That’s the simple version.

For a start, I wrote Regency romance, not just any old romance. It’s a very distinct genre, set in England in the early 1800s, when Jane Austen was published. The doyenne of the (sub)genre was Georgette Heyer, who set the standard for humour, well-developed characters, historical accuracy, and lively dialogue. Fans of regencies often don’t read any other kind of romance.

Given the limits of the genre, I managed to write all sorts of stories, some set around historical events such as the Battle of Waterloo, some comedies of manners, some exploring serious subjects like the mistreatment of chimneysweeps (Crossed Quills). I also branched out into several sub-sub-genres: fantasy—fairytales rewritten with a Regency setting (The Magic of Love); time travel (Byron’s Child);
and a ghost story (The Actress and the Rake).

One of my regencies was classified by the publisher as a “Regency Historical,” largely, I gathered, because it was considerably longer than normal.

The genre “Mystery” turns out to be even more complex. Most people agree that my Daisy Dalrymple series, set in the 1920s, is historical. Some, however, contend that a book can’t be called historical fiction unless it’s set at least 100 years before the present. The Cornish mysteries, set around 1970, have even more dissenters from the historical label. It’s not historical if it’s set in the lifetime of the writer. It’s not historical if it’s less than 50 years ago. Et cetera.

I’ve even heard from medievalists that nothing after 1400 (or is it 1500?) can be described as historical as that’s when the “modern era” began. I hope they have their tongues in their cheeks!

As far as I’m concerned both my series are historical. Yes, I lived through the ’60s and ’70s, but I have to do research about the past when writing both.

Another battle is whether to call both series “cosy/cozy” or “traditional.” I used to be quite happy with the cosy label until a flood of craft mysteries arrived on the scene, in which the mysteries of the craft get as much attention as the mystery of the crime. Nowadays I much prefer to be placed in the traditional group.

Both terms are ill-defined, but they do guide readers to the type of stories they prefer. That, I suppose, is the purpose of the whole shebang.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Seeking the Muse

By Jason P. Henry

Throughout my life I have been an artist, a musician, and now a writer. Creativity runs thick in my blood. As a result, I have spent (perhaps wasted) a lot of time seeking the muse. She was such an elusive, fleeting, little tart. I always felt like I was three steps behind her, that I didn’t have what it took to catch up and drain her of the inspiration I desperately needed. I was a vampire, thirsty for that creative rich blood, and I was dehydrating.

Then I learned a valuable lesson about her. She was there, within my grasp, the whole time. My muse, she’s a stalker. The whole time I was looking for her, she was standing right behind me, waiting for me to turn around so she could smack me and say, ‘Here I am, stupid, now sit your butt down and write.’ When I learned, better yet, when I accepted, how devious my muse truly is, I stopped looking for her. I simply started waiting for those subtle, sucker punches and her sultry, little voice seductively whispering the words ‘Here I am’ into my ear.

Now, without trying, I see her everywhere; standing on street corners, in the seat behind me, across the room at a restaurant, in the news, on the radio, and even on the vehicle in front of mine. No matter where I am, she’s there. She doesn’t just kick me in the gut me to get my attention either, sometimes she does all she can to completely frazzle my nerves. Her approach is more like a haunting. Ever wake up from a sound sleep in the middle of the night, open your eyes, and then crawl out of your skin because you are certain there was a face leaning over the bed and staring at you? Yeah, my muse can be a lot like.

An example? Thanks for asking.

A couple of weeks ago I was driving along, happy and content, not even thinking about writing. Then I rolled to a smooth stop at a red light, right behind a dark blue S.U.V. with its rear window decorated. The window was adorned with a memorial. Not uncommon but, for some reason, this one caught my attention.

In Memory of
Gone but NEVER forgotten.

It was a little unsettling to see my first name on a memorial like that. Not that I have an unusual name, it was the principle of the matter. However, what really rattled my cage was the apparent date of death, which happens to be the exact date of my birth. Now, regardless of your beliefs, that’s enough to jolt even the most steadfast fortitude. I told you, my muse is not a nice person, and she had just throat punched me. When I was able to breathe again I realized that, once more, reality had just become stranger than fiction. A story was already writing itself about a guy who develops an unhealthy obsession after seeing such a heart-stopping tribute.

I write thriller, suspense, and horror. So it would seem that this life moment was tailored to my style. Who knows me better than my muse, right? The truth is, it’s suitable for many genres. A romance author could have seen the same memorial and went a completely different direction than I’ve gone. That’s the beauty of inspiration, the same moment can move twenty different people in twenty different ways.

Pardon my language for a moment, because it’s time for me to share a little secret. Writer’s block is bullshit, it’s an excuse. There, I said it. How many of you hate me now? Here’s another one: The muse is a farce, a ghost, she’s more fictional than your novel. Personally, I love the term ‘muse’, regardless of how mythical it is. But, ‘muse’ is a word used by artists to describe something they are looking for, that they hope will provide them with inspiration.

Stop looking! Every moment of every day, regardless of your genre, you are surrounded by writing material. You simply have to be willing to open your mind (not your eyes) and take notice. Train your brain. Know your genre and then start looking at the world differently. Look at everyday things and ask yourself, how could I use that in my writing? Soon, you’ll find inspiration comes naturally, and you too can call your muse a stalker.

When he's not working with the dedicated and passionate people of Pikes Peak Writers, Jason P. Henry is lost in a world of serial killers, psychopaths, and other unsavory folks. Ask him what he is thinking, but only at your own risk. More often than not he is plotting a murder, considering the next victim, or twisting seemingly innocent things into dark and demented ideas. A Suspense, Thriller and Horror writer with a dark, twisted sense of humor, Jason strives to make people squirm, cringe, and laugh. He loves to offer a smile, but is quick to leave you wondering what lies behind it. Jason P. Henry is best summed up by the great philosopher Eminem “I'm friends with the monsters beside of my bed, get along with the voices inside of my head.” Learn more about Jason at

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Polly Iyer Interviews Polly Iyer on Genres

Q. What genre do you write?
A. I write cross-genre fiction.

Q. What’s that?
A. That’s the genre that agents and editors tell you they can’t place on the bookshelf when they reject you. Bookstores can’t find a place for your book either.

Q. So, do you write either mystery, suspense, or thrillers?
A. Yes, all three, sometimes in one book, but there’s also romance.

Q. Then it’s romantic suspense?
A. Not really.

Q. Why not?
A. Because I don’t follow the romantic-suspense formula. Sometimes the romances in my books don’t have a HEA, Happy Ever After. Romance Writers of America classifies Romantic Suspense this way: The love story is the main focus of the novel, a suspense/mystery/thriller plot is blended with the love story, and the resolution of the romance is emotionally satisfying and optimistic. Though my books have a romance, crime is the focus of the story. RWA has tempered their former explanation of a definite HEA to an ending that is emotionally satisfying and optimistic. That leaves some room for H/h (Hero/heroine—notice the female H is in small letters. I take umbrage.) to maybe get together, maybe not, but probably. My book Hooked has that kind of ending.
I leave it up to the reader to decide. I have one more book with the same kind of ending.

Q. So, Hooked is a romance with a satisfying and optimistic ending?
A. I thought so, but some reviewers did not find the ending at all satisfying. They wanted to know what happened after the last page. Oh, and there’s humor in this one too.

Q. So it’s a Romantic Comedy?
A. Oh, no. There’s humor but there are a few murders, so it really isn’t funny. Just humorous in parts.

Q. So how do you characterize your work?
A. Broadly? Suspense with a hint of romance.

Q. And humor.
A. Sometimes. My last book, Backlash, is very serious. Even though the two main characters are a couple, there’s no hot romance in this one. But there are romantic elements.

Q. Sigh. I’m thoroughly confused. Maybe you should create a new genre to satisfy everyone.
A. Oh, that’s impossible. A writer will never satisfy everyone. I’ve had readers think I tell the best stories ever and others who think I should learn how to write. Agents, on the other hand, are only satisfied if the book meets the current genre in vogue, and writers better be fast because that changes as often as women change shoes. Agents can’t pitch a novel and call it Crime Fiction with Romance and Humor, now, can they? Editors of large publishing houses already have the books filtered first by agents, so they don’t see all of what’s out there, but they want to be on the cutting edge as well. Publishers want to be able to pitch the book to the bookstores, and bookstores have to know where to put the book in the store. What it comes down to is some writers have to put up with an unimaginative bunch in order to get published.

Think back to J.K. Rowling, who had a hell of a time getting any publisher to read Harry Potter. Then, when it became a huge success, agents, editors, and publishers all wanted wizard books. Then it changed again to vampires, and that changed to--you get the picture. Exhausting, isn’t it?

Q. How do you do it then?
A. I self-publish.

Q. What does that mean?
A. I can do anything I damn well please and hope readers find me and like what I write.

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.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Secrets of Genre Strategy

Today, I'd like to share some secrets for getting noticed in your genre. First, it's a step in the right direction to write a great book. However, these days that's not enough. Amidst the vast competition, somehow your gem must stand out and get noticed. Genre strategy is one way to do that. Here are some secrets to achieve that:
  1. Be specific. Narrow down your genre. For example, don't just say you've written a romance. The romance genre contains tons of categories. To help potential readers discover your romance buried amongst others, include another category, such as contemporary, historical, paranormal, Young Adult, etc. To further guide readers to your book, you can narrow the field by including an extra category to the first two, such as a  sweet contemporary romance, a Christian historical romance, an erotic paranormal romance. You get the drift. Amazon, for example, provides tons of romance categories from which to choose. I chose the reality show romance category to describe Girl of My Dreams, since it did feature reality show segments. If readers click on that category, my book comes up much faster than in the more populated contemporary romance section.
  2. Pick the more exciting sounding category. 
    This tip is similar to the one above, but not exactly the same.
     For my thriller, Two Wrongs, for a long time I described it as a mystery. Yes, it belongs to the mystery category, but what takes place is more of a mystery to the hero, and not the reader. The reader knows early on what the villain is planning and even knows who the villain is. However, the hero is unaware of the nefarious plots against him. Calling this book a thriller is not only more exciting, but more accurate. If you wish to judge for yourself, Two Wrongs is now free at Amazon and also free at Smashwords sites.
  3. Be Truthful. Whatever you do, don't describe your book as an erotic romance, if it's not, and vice versa.
  4. Make sure your cover fits your genre. As above, take care to make your book's cover not only eye-catching, but also match what's in store. For example, don't put a cozy cover on a police procedural, unless somehow you've written a combination of the two. Don't place a steamy, clinching couple on a sweet romance book. Readers remember betrayals. 
  5. Follow a trend. In a way, I hate to list this one, but since many find this scheme to be useful, I must. If a popular book or movie comes out, you may want to see if your own book mirrors it in even a small way. Many latched onto the Fifty Shades craze to hype erotica, and science fiction got a boost from the movie, Gravity. However, fame through comparison can be fleeting, since another new fad is bound to come up. Still, if you're after immediate gratification, it may work.   
I hope you find the above genre strategies useful. If you have another to share, please do so. Or, if you wish, please comment on one of the above.

Experience the diversity and versatility of Morgan Mandel. Romantic Comedies: Her Handyman, its sequel, A Perfect Angelstandalone reality show romance; Girl of My Dreams.  Thriller: Forever Young: Blessing or Curse,its sequel: the Blessing or Curse CollectionRomantic suspense: Killer CareerMystery:Two Wrongs. Short  and Sweet   Romance: Christmas   Carol.  Twitter:@MorganMandel Websites: Morgan Mandel.Com    Morgan Does Chick Lit.Com.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Mystery, Suspense, or Romance

Although I write romantic suspense, I'm not happy with the moniker the industry gave to the genre. According to the publishing industry, romantic suspense includes all romance-themed mystery sub-genres, from cozy to thriller. There's the added hero/heroine story arc, with its requisite Happily Ever After. However, by tacking that 'suspense' term onto the genre, readers might be expecting an actual suspense, not a mystery, and be disappointed.

Mystery isn't the same as suspense. I happen to think I write romantic mysteries, or, as I prefer to call them, "Mysteries with Relationships."

According to the dictionary, suspense is a state of uncertainty, enjoyable tension, or anxiety. A mystery is something you cannot explain, or don't know anything about. It's easy to see how the two overlap.

Often the major difference in writing a mystery as opposed to a suspense will boil down to Point of View. If there's a villain's POV, then the reader knows what's happened. Suspense. Think Alfred Hitchcock. Do you know the bad guys are waiting in the heroine's apartment. That's suspense.

If there's only the detective's POV (and I'm being simplistic, because often there are multiple POV characters in a mystery, but they're not the villain), then the reader doesn't know what happened. Mystery. Think Sherlock Holmes. Does the heroine show up at her apartment and think something is "off?" That's mystery.

When I started writing my first book, I thought I was writing a mystery. Heck, I'd never even read a romance. But when my daughters, who were reading the manuscript said it was a romance, I figured I ought to read a few. Hundred.

And as I read, I fell in love with the "romantic suspense" genre, although I still think there's room in there for Mysteries With Relationships.

Finding Sarah starts off as a mystery. Sarah's shop has been robbed and she calls the police. The detective, Randy, tries to solve it. However, later in the book, Randy and Sarah are separated, and Sarah is in danger. Now, the reader will see things through Sarah's eyes that Randy doesn't know, and things through Randy's eyes that Sarah doesn't know. This creates suspense, even though the book wasn't intended as a strictly suspense novel.

In Hidden Fire, the same two characters are part of a more classic mystery. There's been a murder, and Randy must figure out who did it. The reader never sees the killer, so it wouldn't be classified as a suspense, although there's plenty of danger for the reader to worry about.

In Danger in Deer Ridge, because the villain was obvious, I included his POV, and that added elements of suspense to the story. But, in my mind, it's still more of a mystery.

If I'd been responsible for labeling romance books that include mystery sub-genres, I'd probably have included a "mystery romance" moniker. But nobody asked me (they never do), so we've got romantic suspense novels that might not have any classic suspense in them. Are they still good books? Of course.

What's your take? Do you like seeing what the bad guys are up to (suspense?) Or do you prefer to follow the protagonists and solve the puzzle with them (mystery)?

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She's the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.


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