Friday, December 9, 2016

When Do You Fire A Protagonist?

This top post of 2016 was first published on June 9th.

Image from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen/Illustrator: Charles E. Brock (Macmillan & Co, 1895)

I picked the wrong protagonist. It took 20 versions and 100 pages of my historical novel-in-progress for me to admit fellow work-shoppers were right. I value feedback from writers I respect, but I do take care to avoid group-think. In this case, colleagues simply called to my attention what my manuscript was already screaming: “You have to rewrite me from a different point of view!”

The problem was that I had chosen to write a story revolving around a girl who was only three years old at the start of the tale. I thought she would turn thirteen within a couple of chapters. She didn’t.

I had one other point-of-view character to play with, but he was already playing the role of antagonist.

Many great adult novels have child protagonists—To Kill A Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and The Secret Life of Bees to name a few—but rarely are they toddlers. Francie Nolan spends only the briefest time as a baby in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and author Betty Smith deftly handles that with an omniscient voice. That was not the most effective voice for my story.

Me? I was about to saddle readers with the limited perspective of a barely verbal child. I don’t believe a protagonist is required to be relatable, but this was a bridge too far: a character too young for self-reflection, empathy, or the ability to decode social cues. She lacked the vocabulary for complex sensory experience or dialogue, was incapable of hiding secret motivations, was unaware of mortality. I had written this kiddie into a corner.

She would have turned thirteen halfway through the novel, but that was too long. I could not start the story later because of the way the plot was designed to move toward a shocking but inevitable event.

I had to fire my protagonist.

For her replacement, I turned to her twelve-year-old sister, whose relationship with the little girl was central to the story. This was not a matter of simply making whatever happened to the little sister now happen to the big sister. Although the basic plot and events remained the same, I had to filter those experiences through a different mindset.

In some ways, I was starting from scratch.

What’s more, the two sisters could not be together every moment, so I had to give up many scenes I had imagined and replace them with something as yet unimagined. I was crushed to realize that the antagonist and the little sister would be the only witnesses to the event I believed was most critical, which meant readers would have to witness it through the antagonist’s perspective instead of the protagonist’s. I felt as if I were leaving readers alone with a bad man. Worse, I feared I was leaving the new protagonist out of a critical piece of the puzzle.

I was wrong.

Writers don’t put together ready-made puzzles. We create puzzles through the process of writing.

My new choices forced me to face the way events in a family ripple outward, to dig deeper into what family means, to consider why we try to protect our loved ones and why we fail, to explore sexual politics. I spent more time developing the antagonist’s relationship with the new protagonist. Then I used his effects on her to forge her into a hero I never expected.

At first, my new protagonist seemed to me to lack fire. She was domestic, obedient, motherly, unambitious, feminine. She married at thirteen, a tragedy in itself. I married at 39, which some might consider tragic, but it was my choice.

I could not relate to her at all.

My challenge was to find reflections of her within myself, and to ask: how can I give victory to this girl within the confines of her historical era, domestic sphere, and economic limitations. How can I liberate a pre-feminist woman?

It’s not a new trick. Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and Louisa May Alcott all came into their powers before women’s suffrage. They were feminists before feminism, their protagonists as subversive as many modern female protagonists—for simply insisting their viewpoint mattered. I’ve also sought to honor my protagonist’s role in the sphere of hearth and home, to reveal how sacred that role can be.

As with any worthy endeavor, I’ve faced unexpected challenges, which have taught me unexpected lessons, which have led to unexpected conclusions. All because I fired a protagonist for being underage.

Have you ever fired a protagonist?

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Denver Post, Connotation PressRivet Journal, and Pangyrus. She’s an editor, ghostwriter, and coach who has collaborated on more than twenty books. She teaches young writers at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a TV journalist 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, December 8, 2016

Morgan Mandel Interviews Popular Male Romance Cover Model, Jason Aaron Baca

This top post of 2016 was first published on February 3. 

I have a special treat for you today. My guest is male cover model, Jason Aaron Baca, whose image has graced so many covers, he's closing in on Fabio’s record of 460.

Jason Aaron Baca of Los Gatos, CA is a romance novel cover model of over 400 books. Jason was a high school and college baseball player before trying his hand at acting. While on location in Bodega Bay, Ca where he was a double for an actor in “I Know What You Did Last Summer” he was discovered by a photographer and asked to take photos. From there, Jason went on to pose for many different clothing lines including YMLA, Sketchers, and many others.

In 2007 he discovered Romance Novel Cover modeling and put his attention into modeling exclusively for that.


Welcome to Blood-Red Pencil, Jason. Don’t let our blog name scare you. We’re just a bunch of editors and authors sharing experiences and advice. This February we’re focusing on guys in the romance industry.

Q: A book cover can make or break a book, especially a romance. From what I hear, something about a Jason Baca cover produces the desired response. Why do you think that’s so?

Jason – Well, thank you for getting in touch with me. I do believe that an author puts their heart and soul into their writings. So I’d think they’d want someone on their cover who also gives their heart and soul into looking their absolute best for it.

Q: How does it feel to be in such demand as a cover model?

Jason – I love it. I think it’s terrific to see/hear that I’m the go to guy for so many graphic artists and publishers. It took years for it to get this way of course. I had to really go out and make it happen. I mean in this highly competitive business opportunity is not going to just come to you… You are going to have to go and find it.

But as time went on and graphic artists became familiar with me, it became automatic that they’d consider me for the next edit... and THAT… is what I had envisioned when all this began.

Q: How did you get your break as a model?

Jason – I was on location for a movie where I was a double for Freddie Prinze, Jr. (I Know What You Did Last Summer) and one of the photographers had asked me if he could take a few photos of me for his camera…  I said sure… and it ended up to be my first really big connection with anything in the modeling world…  He gave me a contact… then that next photographer gave me a contact… it just kept feeding into itself.

Q: When did you hone in on romance book covers, and why?

Jason – it was around 2007 or so.  I was about finished with clothing modeling or ad modeling… the typical smile or holding a bottle of shampoo just wasn’t cutting it for me anymore. I wanted something bigger, better…  That’s when I saw it… a romance book… in a book store. I was instantly connected to it. I felt driven to do this. On the inside I felt a volcano erupt and lava was flowing in my veins. My excitement was hard to contain in the bookstore and I remember trying to keep myself from flipping out over the idea I’d instantly created.  My birthday happened to be the next day… And when I blew out those candles…. I made a couple of VERY special wishes… And I would make them come true…

Q: How do you keep your looks? Any special diet, exercise, or products?

Jason – I’ve always been an athlete and been into my body and looking great… So when it came to exercise, it was in me to begin with. Doing photoshoots was just an extension of my working out.  I was now getting to see the rewards of my hard work in the gym, on a book cover unlike before where I was just lifting weights for myself and health.

I live in a balanced diet, I eat clean foods such as chicken breast, grilled fish, meats, and Greek yogurt. I enjoy digging into pasta one day per week which is my one splurge I like to do to get those extra calories I know my thirsty body needs for those workouts I dig way down for.

Q: On the day of a shoot, do you do anything special before?

Jason – I certainly do. The day of the shoot, I apply an herb, citrus, and avocado masque which I leave on for 20 minutes. This allows my skin to feel fresh in the morning and start my day right. I then shower, removing the masque from my skin gently. I towel off and apply body moisturizer from neck to toe. For the face, I use an anti-aging eye balm and then around the temples I use an “ultra gentle soothing cream.” I let that soak and then apply a final moisturizing protective lotion which I purchase at the Body Shop.

Q: On a shoot, do you have a say about your expression, pose, clothes, setting, or it is all up to your client?

Jason – Yes and no… usually they’ll send me the concepts in writing or an image. But I always use my imagination anyways… and when they start trying to over pose, I get on the floor and start doing pushups or something to shake it off.  I end up doing what comes natural a lot of the times and throw those poses in as well… 9 times out of 10 they end up using my idea.

Q: Do you sometimes refuse modeling jobs? If so, why?

Jason – Oh sure, I have.  Some jobs just aren’t for me. And they are best for other models.  I listen to the opportunity and thank them for offering and that’s as far as it goes. I never want to feel like I’m desperate or that I have to “take any opportunity that comes my way.” No, that’s no good. It’s the quality stuff that makes my world exciting to me, not the quantity.

Q: Any funny or maybe embarrassing experiences you’d like to share?

Jason – You know, it’s not until I get asked this question that I realize what a boring person I can be in a studio! Sure I have little experiences here and there but nothing to go nuts over.  I’m in the studio and feel like I know what I’m doing.  There is not a kinda confident look… either you’re confident about yourself or not. I take the confident approach.

Q: I read somewhere that at first you didn’t read romances, but curiosity has gotten the better of you, and at times you indulge. Is that right?

Jason – Yes, you are right about that. I have been reading these courtesy copies that they send my way and have been very drawn into some. They are most interesting books and what imaginations romance authors have (without me saying any specific names.)

Q: Tell us something about the two modeling books you’ve written, and how we can order them.

Jason – The books were written when I had other goals in mind. They were written when I was pursuing getting on the cover of Playgirl. Not a thing is mentioned about the romance cover modeling though I do plan to get something going.  But if a person wants to read those books from a long time ago they can be ordered on Amazon. The titles are Journey of a Male Model and Overexposed.

Q: If someone would like to hire you as a book cover model, whom should they contact?

Jason - If someone wants to, they can contact my management at HM Models

If someone wants to purchase an image from my website, they can see the info in the journal of the page.

Thanks so much for sharing your cover model life with us, Jason.

For more about Jason Aaron Baca, check out the People magazine article, the Guardian article, the Marie Claire article, and lots of book cover photos from photographer, Portia Shao, to drool over on Pinterest.

Interview by Morgan Mandel. Check Out Morgan's 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

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Avoid Sad Sack Protagonists

This top post of 2016 was first published on June 2nd.

Your characters should be multi-faceted. They should have strengths and weaknesses.

Wounds from life that haven't healed can supply internal conflict or motivate them to take on the overall story problem.

However, if your character is so lacking in self-esteem that he is not equal to tackling the overall story problem or so sniveling or pathetic the reader can’t get behind him, it is a serious plot fail.

If you decide to burden your characters with low self-esteem at least understand the why and how. Use the problem judiciously to motivate them, not from a standpoint of ignorance. Choose the degree of affliction carefully.

As children grow up, there are several ways in which their self-esteem is damaged.

1. Healthy self-esteem requires competence.

A child needs to feel self-confident and independent. If Dick, as a child, is not allowed to master things, to build self-confidence and independence, he becomes weak and helpless and develops an inferiority complex.

These problems can complicate Dick's relationships, friendships, social connections, and job performance. Dick's inferiority complex can create conflict in all layers of story problem. Wherever he goes, whoever he meets, he will feel "one down." He will hear implied criticism where none is intended. He will grow resentful of everyone he deems "one up": those who are smarter, richer, or more successful.

How far he goes to level the playing field depends on the type of story you are telling and the type of character he plays. Is he the villain? Is he a foe? Worse, is he a friend?

2. Healthy self-esteem requires confidence.

If Jane lacks confidence, she might irrationally defer to others. She can lack ambition and be pessimistic. This creates conflict with her lovers, family members, friends and business partners. In this state, Jane makes a good foe. It's hard to be friends with her. Her friends will grow tired of her negativity and inability to make a decision.

3. Healthy self-esteem requires self-respect.

If Sally has low self-esteem, she'll have a hard time appreciating other people. The darker side of low self-esteem can drag her into drug addiction and crime. She does not love herself, so she cannot feel the love other people try to give her. She will take every positive comment they make as a personal attack. Sally makes a poor friend and coworker. No matter how hard you try to make Sally feel better, she'll twist what you say to fit her negative self-image.

Misery not only loves company, miserable characters will go to great lengths to drag others down with them.

Severely broken characters do not make good protagonists, unless it is a literary story where you follow the character’s arc from low self-esteem to high self-esteem.

Everyone has down days, but if Dick is depressed, he always feels low. It keeps him from succeeding in relationships, friendships, at work, and in social organizations. He won’t make a good antagonist or hero in a Thriller or action tale because he can’t summon the requisite energy.

Depressed characters can be the protagonist in a literary story where they overcome the problem.

Depressed characters can be friends and foes in the other genres.

I've read a few stories with depressed, self-loathing main characters. It was difficult to root for them.

There is a trend to utilize horrible people as protagonists. For some writers, the ploy has worked but with mixed reviews. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling comes to mind.

I don’t read those books, probably for the same reason I don’t watch “reality” TV where dysfunctional people “show their backsides,” as my granny would say, for public entertainment.

I am troubled by the presentation of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse as humorous rather than tragic. Abuse is a sad reality for too many people. As a writer your manipulation of the characters and plot illustrates abuse as excusable or criminal. But that is a topic for another day.

Your protagonist does not have to be perfect, but he must inspire the reader to root for him. We can root for him to succeed in his overall story goal or fail at it. Either way, by making us care about the story outcome, you supply the needed tension to keep readers turning pages.

Sad sack protagonists can make readers toss your book into the garbage bin and leave scathing reviews.

For more information on building characters through personality types and nature/nurture, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict and SBB: Build a Cast Workbook.

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.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Hollywood, Here I Come

This top post of 2016 was first published on April 28th.

From April first to the third, I blew my budget on a trip to California for the Sisters in Crime Hollywood Conference at the Hilton Hotel in Universal City. The SinC organization put on a great conference, and it didn’t cost the Sisters one cent. Well, except for travel and hotel, but the conference was free.

Every morning started with a continental breakfast except for Saturday when the Los Angeles Chapter of SinC put on a magnificent spread. Lunch was provided Friday and Saturday, and I have to say the Hilton food was outstanding.

The conference included panels with Hollywood industry veterans that included writers, producers, editors, screenwriters, cable and network professionals, directors, program and development honchos, literary agents and managers, and even an entertainment attorney. The speakers explained their jobs, told antidotes, gave us ideas how to connect, and graciously offered five minute pitches to the attendees.

Before the pitch session, we had pitch specialists help us compose a one line pitch to grab a producer/director/agent's attention. If you think it’s hard to explain your book in a sentence that would knock a producer’s socks off, you’re right. The person who helped our group was terrific. When the time came to pitch, most of us were nervous. I pitched the first book in my series, Mind Games, to a lovely gal who is director of development at Cartel. When the timekeeper came in to signal the end of my five minutes, I slipped the development director my bookmark containing all my books in living color, and was ushered out the door.

The subjects of the six panels:
1. Who’s Looking for What?
2. What Makes a Good Character?
3. From Page to Screen
4. Getting Past the Gatekeepers
5. The Steps from Development to Green Light
6. Let’s Make a Deal

My take was what a lot of us felt: MIXED MESSAGES. We want your book, we want to find you, BUT, you must have an agent with connections to film and TV in order to get your book in front of the right people. This was something I suspected but it spelled disappointment nevertheless. Not that I thought anyone would walk away with a contract. I'm not that naive. One writer I know wangled an invitation to send her book, so best of luck to her. I gave my bookmark to the woman who said they were always looking for good material. We’ve since connected on Facebook. I hope she’s curious enough to check out my stories. But the best way to gain the attention of Hollywood is to write a bestseller, a la Gone Girl, get lots of reviews, and then maybe, just maybe, someone will find your book. We all know how easy that is. :-)

The highlight for me was an hour speech by bestselling author, Megan Abbot, who’s adapting two of her novels for film. She, like Gillian Flynn, has the star power and writing creds to be able to negotiate that kind of control. Advice for the rest of us, should we be lucky to ever land an option or contract: stay out of it. They will do what they want with your words and your story. Megan was funny, natural, and informative about the ins and outs of writing for film. Everyone thought she was great. I know I did.

The other delight was actress-turned-mystery writer, Harley Jane Kozak, interviewing actress, writer, director, and producer, Alison Sweeney, who stars in Murder She Baked on the Hallmark Channel, based on the books by Joanne Fluke.

Hallmark produces ninety movies a year, and is the best outlet for cozy mysteries, which unfortunately, I don’t write. I’m a Lifetime Channel gal myself. (Hear me, Lifetime? I’m ready. Got eight stories you can adapt to the small screen. Even wrote a screenplay for one of them.)

Best of all was the camaraderie of the Sisters. I met a few Sisters I knew from online, got to know a few more. To top off the weekend, three of us did Rodeo Drive. We sauntered into all the designers' stores, checked prices, and hot-footed out of all the designers' stores. But we had a fun afternoon. Even our actor-to-be Uber driver drove us around and pointed out the high spots. Was the trip worth it? Every penny.

What’s next for me? I wrote a screenplay for my book Hooked in 2014, entered it in a contest—one of the things they suggested we do to get our work into the hands of film professionals—and though it didn’t do well, I plan to learn how to do it better and rewrite it. I also want to finish the two books I’m working on. So full plate for 2016. Wish me luck.

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, December 5, 2016

What is Deep POV?

This Top Post of 2016 first published on May 17.

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.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Five Ways to Spring Clean Your Amazon Author Page

This Top Post of 2016 first published on March 29.

So, you have a book or multiple books on Amazon, eh? Great! You’ve probably taken time to head over to the Author Central page on Amazon to give readers some information about yourself.

And after you did that…

…you might have worried more about checking your book rankings on Amazon than providing a little feng shui to your author space.

If so, worry not, for below, you’ll find five ways to help you spruce up your author page!

#1 - An image can be worth a thousand words. The first thing readers see when they land on your author page is your face. Think about the personality you want to convey to your reader and change your image periodically to reflect that personality.

#2 - Well, hello, my name is… Just as your life changes, your bio should change. It’s your HELLO, your WELCOME, your INTRODUCTION to your reader, so it should pop. It doesn’t hurt to do a quarterly check on your bio, cutting descriptions that might detract a reader, adding information that reveals your awesome personality, changing the tone of the bio depending on where your writing career is currently, etc.

#3 - When in doubt, blog it out. If you keep an active blog, link it to your author page. This is a great way to make your author page a catch-all: a place not only to purchase your books but also to keep up on what’s going on in your personal and writing lives.

#4 - Give ’em something to talk about. Do you have trailers for your books? Do you have video of book signings, events, interviews? Do you have great pictures of you with your readers? Add those images and videos to your author page to add layers of cool information for readers to dig into and learn more about you and your product(s).

#5 - Sharing is caring. When you update your author page, share the link with your readers: add it to your e-mail signature and newsletter, and let your friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter know about the page, too.

Every home should be a space people feel comfortable in, want to return to. Your Amazon Author page is no exception. Spring clean your space and invite your readers to the goodies you leave for them!

How often do your update your author page on Amazon? How important do you find updating your author page?

Creative Passionista Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her author website.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Happy Holy Days and More

Words are so powerful. Last year, with all the debate around Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays... I came up with a series of these memes. I'm fairly certain we can all find the sacred in the season, and within the context of our own story.

Photo credit: Dani Greer 

As we do every December, we'll share some of our previous posts, and this year, you'll get another chance to read the Best of 2016. It was a good year for us, and we hope you'll join us here in 2017. Happy holy days!


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