Saturday, January 21, 2017

So You Want to Write a Book by Victoria Chatham

It's January already and this month we're taking a look at the premise that 
everybody wants to write a book, but most do not. Writing is hard work. What got you started, and what helps you get through a complete story? 

I would love to have a dollar for every time this topic has cropped up. Over the years I’ve met people who, when you tell them you are a writer, respond with quips like, “I’m writing a book”, or “I could write a book if I wanted to”, or the one that bugs me the most, “Anyone can write a book”. Probably that’s true, but the quality of the finished work by ‘anyone’ would be seriously suspect.

People who don’t write have absolutely no concept of what is involved, which is why it is so important for writers to have writer friends. Only they understand those “Aha” moments writers have, usually at the most inopportune moments. You know, the ones that wake you at night or strike like lightning when you are waiting in line for a teller at the bank. You search your purse or pockets for paper and pen and find one or the other. Leaving the line to search for the missing items would mean losing your place. What to do, what to do! Only another writer understands the agony of rejection, the angst that comes from knowing you have missed a plot point and what to do about it.

I can’t really remember why I started writing. I think the urge stemmed initially from simply having an over-active imagination. I was always dreaming up stories and entertaining my family, especially my cousins. One of my favorite classes at school was English. I liked the order of it and, as a teenager, enjoyed both English Literature and Grammar which were taught as separate subjects at the school I attended.

The ideas never stopped but I enjoyed being out and about too much to settle down to the serious subject of writing. Horses, boyfriends, having a social life were all of much more importance to me then. It was the 60s, after all, with bee-hive hairdos, peace, love, and rock 'n roll. Once I was married and had children, the stories started surfacing again as I entertained them. One of their favorite story-telling methods was drawing a story on the dining room wall. When it was full, we simply whitewashed it and started again. On a rainy day (loads of them in England) it was nothing to have upwards of half a dozen kids, all contributing to the story and the stick-figure illustrations.

It wasn’t until my daughter was coming up to her thirteenth birthday that I seriously considered writing a book. It was called If Wishes Were Horses and was the perfect story for, as I had been, a horse-mad teenager. I wrote that book on Sundays, shutting myself in my bedroom with a stack of sandwiches and a flask of coffee, leaving strict instructions to the family that on no account was I to be disturbed unless there was a lot of blood or a fire.

I quickly discovered that the storylines I had in my head did not always transfer that well to paper. Yes, I wrote it in longhand and a work colleague typed my pages for me during the following week. Progress was slow as I came to the stunning realization that this was not going to be as easy as I had imagined it to be. I learnt a lot, especially the fact that a good book generally takes time. What had been intended for my daughter's thirteenth birthday was actually delivered for her fifteenth birthday.

Life events happened and I put writing on the back-burner, so much so that I didn’t write for years. Since I’ve retired I’ve written almost full time. I've attended workshops and conferences, read craft books and joined writing groups. I’ve invested myself in the lives of my characters, learnt about developing plots and sub-plots, using sub-text in dialogue and using that dialogue to drop clues or move the story forward.

My compunction now is to get the characters who wander through the landscape of my mind out of my head and onto the page. When I stall, which I sometimes do, I’ll write something silly and innocuous. These scribblings rarely see the light of day but serve their purpose. When I have a story in full flow I write for four hours a day, sometimes more but never less.

I finished my last book in December and on January 1st was looking forward to something of a break from the daily grind of writing. In fact, I was so tired I said I would probably give up writing. Ha. My next book is already in the works but I’m taking it slowly and won’t start the actual writing until March or April. In the meantime, I’ll flesh out my characters, plot their lives, add in a villain or two and work out the happy ever after ending which is what I aim for with every book I write.

Take a look at what these fine authors have to say:

Friday, December 16, 2016

Prologue and Epilogue: To Use Them or Not?

Our Round Robin topic this month is on the use (or not) of a prologue and epilogue in a novel.

pro·logue ˈprōˌlôɡ/
1.     a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work.
"this idea is outlined in the prologue"
o   an event or action that leads to another event or situation.
"civil unrest in a few isolated villages became the prologue to widespread rebellion"

Authors have often been told that agents and editors do not like prologues, nor do readers bother to read them. If that is the case, why do some authors (holding my hand up here) use them?

At best they can depict an important clue to an inciting incident, character or plot, at worst they become the dreaded ‘info dump’. They should be shorter rather than longer. A Regency romance by a New York Times best-selling author that I read recently had a prologue that ran over several pages. By the time I reached Chapter 1, I felt cheated of my reading time because by then I was well into a story that seemed to be starting all over again. The epilogue in the same book, on the other hand, was barely three pages long.

When I wrote His Dark Enchantress, I chose to use a prologue to show the incident that made my heroine want to remain something of a recluse. In the epilogue, that incident is resolved. In both instances, there is a marked time-frame of three years between the incident and the start of Chapter 1 and several months between the end of the last chapter and the epilogue.

I had considered working the information into my text with flashbacks, but there’s another issue. Flashbacks, if not introduced with some circumspection, can be clumsy and obtrusive and slow the pace of a book. If I were writing that book today, I might choose to exclude the prologue and epilogue entirely and find another way to introduce that same information, probably through dialogue.

When I wrote that prologue I wanted my character’s strength and loyalty to be immediately evident, so that the reader would understand her actions as they got into the story. In that book I used the epilogue to not only give closure to the story, but to also set up for a sequel. I think that using a prologue and epilogue is really determined by the story.

As an instance, I have read several thrillers where the prologue inevitably shows some past murder which is then solved in the body of the book. These types of books need not necessarily have an epilogue. There is no rule that I can discover that says if you have a prologue you have to have an epilogue. In the romance genre, many books will have both. In a romance, an epilogue is often a handy vehicle to get a pregnancy out of the way without suffering the heroine’s pangs of morning sickness, stomach cramps and food cravings.

1.     a section or speech at the end of a book or play that serves as a comment on or a conclusion to what has happened.
"the book is summarized in the epilogue"
So there you have it! Now visit these authors for their take on the subject.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Don't Waste Your Words by Victoria Chatham

To summarize for the round-robin topic: How does wording choice develop a story's character? How do you use and select your words?

I suspect all authors have had those wonderful moments of pure inspiration. That brilliant phrase that jolts you awake at 3 a.m. a line of dialogue sparkling with wit or characters so real you can feel them. You write as fast as you can to transcribe the images into words on the page. But what words do you use?

My word usage depends very much not only on the characters themselves but in what period I have set them. Contemporary settings require the use of very different words to those I would use in a historical setting. When I build a character, I consider what their family was like and what education they received, whether formal or not. Is my character a 19th century Lord or Lady? Or is he a cowboy? Two sets of characters but requiring totally different words to describe them. The skill here is to pick the right words and only constant practice can serve, both from reading and extending your own vocabulary as you read.

We all know the devil is in the details, especially if you do not want a one-dimensional character. Picking a detail and embellishing it to paint a word picture takes time and balance. In my first ever attempt at a romance novel, a contemporary set in England, I wrote that ‘rain fell on London like a dirty sheet’. However, my critique partner pointed out that a dirty sheet was hardly romantic.

The same applied to ‘sunshine slid down the wall like melting butter’. My critiquer’s comment? Ugh, messy imagery. So what you as the writer might think descriptive may actually convey something entirely different to your reader. And just so you know, both phrases were deleted. Choosing the right words to convey what you see is the art and skill of writing. but then there is also the danger of going too far and boring your reader if you have tried to be too clever. When teaching an introductory creative class I encourage my students to use similes, but sparingly.

Tools I use for choosing words are Marc McCutcheon’s excellent book ‘Building Believable Characters’ which includes forty-eight words for describing noses. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have penned several books together beginning with ‘The Emotion Thesaurus’. Both books offer lists of words if you find yourself coming up short on a character’s details. If I feel I am coming close to repeating myself, I look for synonyms. Is there another word I can use without being a lazy writer? By that, I mean the buzzwords and phrases that crop up time and again particularly in romance novels.

In one book I read by a very well known NYT best-selling author, the heroine ‘shattered’ so many times I thought the poor girl, like Humpty Dumpty, could never be put together again. ‘Going over the edge’ and ‘her toes curled in her slippers’ are also done to death clichés. There are times when a cliché is the exact right combination of words to use, at others less so.

As writers we have vivid imaginations, it’s where a story comes from. But then comes the task of putting those stories into words and making the most of what tools we have to string those words together in a way that best entertains our readers.
I hope you’ll visit these other fine writers for their opinions.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

TITLES by Victoria Chatham

Our Round Robin topic for this month is: How important is a title? What attracts you to a certain title, and how do you determine what to title your book?

A title is as important as the first line of your book. It has to hook the reader into picking the book up to find out more about what is between the covers. Picking a title needs as much attention as your characters, plot, and setting.

A good title should be easy to remember and be appropriate to the book. It could also be a play on words or have a hidden meaning as in Luanne Rice’s The Perfect Summer, which was anything but. It can come from your work in progress, or be named for one of your characters. Georgette Heyer had several single name titles as in Frederica, Venetia and Arabella. Jilly Cooper followed in similar vein with Pandora, Octavia and Emily amongst others. There were also her equestrian background titles Riders, Mount, Polo and Jump. James Michener often used a single title and, again, you knew what you were getting with Texas, Alaska and Hawaii. All of these book titles tell their own tale and give the reader a clear clue about the content of the book.

Authors who write a series or linked books will often have ‘follow on’ titles as in Mary Balogh’s First Comes Marriage, Then Comes Seduction, At Last Comes Love or Donna Alward’s Larch Valley or Cadence Creek series. The titles of these books set readers up with what to expect. There is no cheating in them and there should be no disappointments. However, no matter how good the title or how attractive the cover, there really is no substitute for a good story. I fully admit to having been drawn in by both title and cover and then sadly disappointed with the content. There are so many good books on the market that if I happen to get one that I’m not into by Page 5, then that book gets set aside.

In my own work I prefer to create my titles from the content. They all start out with a working title but by the end of the book that usually is changed to a 3- or 4 word title. My Berkeley Square Regency series has titles His Dark Enchantress and His Ocean Vixen, a play on the male/female relationship. The next book in the series will be His Unexpected Muse and there will be another after that. So far its working title is simply Hester.

One point to be aware of is that titles are not copyrighted. If you wanted to use the title The Great Gatsby, then there is no reason not to. However, would you achieve the same success as F. Scott Fitzgerald? Hard to tell. Whatever your chosen title, plug it into Google or Amazon and see what comes up. If you have a truly original title, there's nothing quite as satisfying as seeing it at the top of the list. Again, no guarantees that your sales will go through the roof, but being Number One somewhere is always a good feeling.

Check in with these authors for their thoughts and opinions on the subject.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Two Ways to Create Wounded Heroes

This month we discuss how to make our stories interesting by giving our characters some kind of psychological, spiritual or physical wounds. The process of healing them becomes the character’s arc, the meat in our stories. What mental, physical or spiritual wounds or scars have you used in your stories?

In a discussion with another author, I was asked what scars I had. Me, being something of a pragmatist, started counting off my physical scars. I had many more than I realized which led me to believe I had been somewhat careless with myself and my skin – the biggest organ of any human being’s body.

I have a scar on my right wrist, from the prong on a belt buckle when I was five years old. I have a scar on my right forearm where my friend’s dog caught me with his claw; nothing nefarious there, just a friendly rough and tumble. On my upper right arm I have more of a nick than a scar, the result of a tussle with a tree. I swear it leapt out at me. The friend with whom I was hiking and who is well versed in first aid, immediately and with great glee at being able to employ her skills, treated me for an impaled object injury.

I have a three inch scar on the back of my head, the unfortunate result of having champagne and strawberries for breakfast one Christmas morning. Who knew that champagne bubbles, or the bubbles in any sparkling wine, cause a body to dehydrate very quickly? I passed out cold, never even saw it coming. I split my head open on the edge of a table as I went down, and spent most of that Christmas Day in emergency being stitched up and rehydrated.

There is a scar on my right eyebrow, the result of coming off a horse during a show jumping event. Said horse, Henry by name and so pretty he should have been a female, was known to stop. I decided I would not give him the chance, clapped my heels into him at the exact moment he did stop, resulting in him taking off almost from a standstill and catapulting me out of the saddle. I somersaulted into the ground as he followed me over the jump and hit my right eyebrow with his left hind hoof as he galloped on. Hospital, stitches, black eye, slight concussion, off work for three days. Ho-hum.

The only scars on my left arm are my inoculation mark on my upper arm (I can legitimately identify with Claire Fraser and Geillis Duncan in Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’) and another under my elbow, the result of slicing it on a sheet of tin when I was eight. My other scars, there are many more, are all surgical scars on my torso. Thanks to those scars I am fit and well today.

Having listened to these histories with some bemusement, my friend then asked if I had used any of them in my writing. I had to say no, as none of them seemed to me to be big enough to be worthy of mention. It was pointed out to me, however, that any one of my accidental scars could be enlarged upon. After all, don’t we all want to heap dreadful things on our heroes and heroines to build the conflict and tension? One of the dictums I remember from an early writing course was, have something bad happen to your character and then make it worse, much worse.

So which of my scars to transfer to a character? I chose the show jumping scar (by the way, that event was never really my fort). Trisha Watts, the character in my novel Loving That Cowboy, has her horse collapse and die beneath her (note to self – dogs, horses and children are not supposed to die in novels!). She is piled into a solid log, splits her head open and is in a coma for eight weeks. When she recovers she finds she’s lost her nerve and can’t get back on a horse without breaking into a cold sweat. Her almost fiancé turns out to be a cheat and a liar. She dumps him (and rightly so). PTSD follows, as does difficulty in trusting another man. Whew.

I’ve used fear of rejection for both my hero and heroine in my book His Ocean Vixen. During the Regency era you were either in (as a member of the aristocracy) or out (as a plebeian). Such was the nature of the time that anyone engaged in trade and making their own money, was frowned upon. My hero, a bastard but recognized and loved by his father, is turned out with nothing by his wicked step-mother when his father dies. My heroine, suffering the results of an unconsummated marriage, fears that no man could love her as she wants to be loved and that she will never have the family she desires. All this makes for interesting, juicy, messy internal and external conflict as the characters fight to overcome their fears.

There are so many avenues to explore with any of these themes. Even where your hero or heroine comes in their family, first born, middle or youngest child and any computation thereof, can carry its own trauma. Taking myself as an example, I am the first born of two sisters. We both exhibit the characteristics of first borns (oh, boy! Do we ever – perfectionist, reliable, conscientious and much more) because there are nine years separating us. Both my daughter (first born) and my eldest son (middle child) share first born characteristics, she because she is the first born and he because he is the first born of two boys. He also has the characteristics of the middle child. The New Birth Order Book by Dr. Kevin Leman delves into these computations in detail. I understood all my children, especially my youngest son, much better after reading it.
It also helped me develop my character, Emmeline Devereux, in my first Regency book, His Dark Enchantress. Emmaline was an only child and as such shows the characteristics of a first- and last born child. My characters come to me fully formed and named. It’s only then I begin to build their backstory and look into all the ways I can twist their psyches by using some of these characteristics.

Here is this month’s list of fellow Round Robin bloggers. I’m looking forward to reading their takes on the subject.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

What Makes a Novel Memorable by Victoria Chatham

Our topic for July is: What makes a novel memorable? For me, it is the characters every time, no matter what the genre.
I have my preferences, of course. I mostly read historical romance, and then western romance (historical or contemporary) and anything and everything in between. I rarely read science fiction, fantasy or inspirational. Not that I haven’t, those categories just don’t come high on my list of preferred reading
My most favorite and memorable historical characters are from Georgette Heyer’s Regency romance Frederica. Freddie is such a managing female! And really, any heroine in any genre has to be a bit out there for me to be engaged. I have read many books where the heroine has been TSTL, too stupid to live, and consequently I have consigned her and the book she appears in back to the shelf.
Heroines in any genre or era need to have some element of courage in their character. Whether it is standing up to their families or the mores of their society, the more courage shown by a character in standing up for what they want or what they believe in, keeps me reading. Wimpy heroines need not apply.  
Snappy heroines that immediately come to mind, after Frederica, are any of Jane Austen’s leading ladies. Okay, I’m probably giving my age away here but I don’t mind. Of more recent years there’s been Janet Evanovitch’s Stephanie Plum and Tami Hoag’s Elena Estes, also Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
My heroes have to be strong, too, but they can be strong in different ways. Lord Alverstoke, Frederica’s nemesis, is everything a Regency hero should be. Something of the bad boy in his youth, but an athletic, muscular figure whose place in society gives him a great sense of self within the propriety of his era. That he gradually falls in love with the aforesaid managing female makes for a delightful character arc as his views change.
Another of Tami Hoag’s characters, Lucky Doucet, is almost an anti-hero. A war-damaged vet,  Lucky retreats to the dark bayous of Louisiana. Even though he’s chosen to live this way, he still manages to help people where and when he can. Love leads to Lucky making his way in the world beyond the bayou with an unexpected and satisfying twist at the end of the tale.
Though they are two very different types of character, the one suave and elegant and the other very physical and damaged, they both held my attention. The more empathy I can feel for the characters, the more I can identify with them then the more real they become to me and those are the books I have no problem returning to again and again.
Do the characters that mean the most to me reflect elements in my psyche? Maybe. Those characters are people that I would like to meet and spend time with, characters whose values and experiences I could imagine sharing with them as I would a good friend, might—after all—be just like me.
See what other authors in our Round Robin group have to say on this subject:

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Emotion in Writing by Victoria Chatham

Our topic for June is: How emotionally involved are you in reading or writing some scenes?

This question immediately took me to the scene in the movie Romancing the Stone where romance novelist Joan Wilder (as played by Kathleen Turner), is sobbing her socks off as she finishes her novel because she is so moved by it. Then there’s the ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ scene between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. How about just about any scene in Casablanca but especially ‘of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine’.

I could pull any number of scenes from any number of movies to give as examples, but I’m sure you have your own favorites. In each of these movies, those scenes had to first be written, whether by an author first whose work was adapted for the screen, or by script writers. Each of those writers knew how to pull at heart strings, light heartedly in Romancing the Stone and more dramatically with Gone With the Wind and Casablanca. The depth of feeling in those scenes are enough to stay with any viewer or reader which is the mark of a great writer.

For anyone who hasn’t seen Casablanca, it is set in that town in North Africa during WWII. The leading characters are Rick and Ilsa who have previously had an affair in Paris but Ilsa ran out on him and broke his heart. That she had her reasons does not detract from the depth of emotion when he sees her again. The subtext of  the ‘gin joint’ line, indicagtes that he was getting over her but now she’s back and is breaking his heart all over again. That is the kind of writing that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go.

I do not see how any writer can NOT get emotionally involved in their writing. If they can’t, then where is the connection or depth in their story? If, as a writer, what you write does not move you, how can you expect it to engage a reader? And isn’t this what we want? To engage our readers? Now that seems like an awful lot of questions but in answering them and studying how to build intrigue, subtext and emotion into your writing will leave readers wanting more.

Take a look at what these fine authors have to say on the subject:

Skye Taylor
Anne Stenhouse
Marci Baun
Heather Haven
Victoria Chatham
Dr. Bob Rich
Diane Bator
Beverley Bateman
Rachael Kosinski
Margaret Fieland
Connie Vines
Rhobin Courtright