Monday, March 31, 2008

Writing and Amazon and Survival on the Cyber-Shelves...

It's Monday after 6pm and I haven't blogged. No, didn't forget it was "my day." Actually thought of it while I was doing a half dozen other things that were pushed backed due to my being away for several days (out of town) at a book festival. (Thank you, Lake County Library for inviting me! It was great!)

I was going to talk about the craft of writing but I'm going to take a side road and talk about the business of writing.

I'm sure many of you are aware of a recent announcement by Amazon that will require or request small press houses selling through Amazon to utilize Amazon's in-house printer, Booksurge, or be shunted to a different selling system on the site. I will right up front admit I've made neither an intensive study of the issue nor read every posting on it. I've read snippets and opinions posted on my fan group and other writer/reader sites.

So keep that in mind as you read this blog. I have not read everything and I'm no legal analyst or expert. I'm an author with a valid business background. I'm also a former small press author now published through New York.

First, Amazon can do whatever Amazon wants. It's their site, their company. If they want to only catalog books with yellow covers, they can do so. If they only want to sell books with the word "Tuesday" in the title, they can do so.

Second, life is full of things legally right but morally wrong. I learned that early on as a private detective. It's a lesson that has stuck with me. It's a valuable one.

Third, as I've posted on my private fan group, I'm a huge proponent of small press. Hell, I was one and I'm not so far up that I've forgotten my beginnings. I made some fabulous friendships in the small press and acquired many of the fans that are yet with me today. I was also screwed over royally in the small press.

Given that, I can think of several logical valid reasons why Amazon would want to control the small press products it offers--"greed" (which seems to be the pat fallback) notwithstanding. Small presses can be underfunded. They can reneg on monies due and fail to perform on shipping requirements. It doesn't matter how good their printer is. If they don't pay their printing bills, books don't ship to Amazon's warehouse. But nine times out of ten, I'll bet you dollars to donuts it's Amazon's customer service that takes the hit. So Amazon's wanting more control over a very slippery section of their inventory isn't a ridiculous goal.

Now, I can see a number of small press people getting ready to tar and feather me. I'm not saying ALL small presses don't pay their bills. But I can state from personal experience there are those that did not and therefore books did not ship and therefore customers ranted at--and blamed--Amazon.

To me, it would make more sense to no longer do business with those houses that can't fulfill inventory requests. But Amazon is Amazon and they have a right to do things as they see fit.

Do I think it sucks that the legit small presses are being tarred and feathered with the same brush? Totally. Again, I'm not saying Amazon is right or morally right. I'm just saying I'm not surprised. Their move is neither unprecedented nor illogical given that there is a segment of small press publishers with unhealthy fly-by-night tendencies.

There is also a segment of small press publishers that gather the brightest and best of talents, giving voices to stories that--at the moment--NY has chosen to ignore. I will also say that, loudly. Some of the best reads on the planet do not come out of NY houses. For examples of extraordinary talent in the small press, go here and here and here. For starters. (There are dozens more. If you want to meet them, join my Yahoo Group where they post free samples of their books.)

But sadly, small press authors rarely background the small press publishers who offer them contracts. I know. Been there, done that, am a poster child wearing the freakin' T-shirt. So because of Amazon's impending decision, many brightest and best voices may not have an avenue for expression for a while.

For as long as it takes for the small presses to organize. To counter with a "better way." A brighter idea.

Amazon is not the only game in town. There are other venues for small press books. There are indy bookstores on line. Hell, there's eBay, the ubiquitous intergalactic garage sale.

A door never closes but for another to open.

I would imagine the other POD printers--like Lightning Source--are very aware of Amazon's "Booksurge" directive. I would imagine at this very moment the head brains at Lightning Source are looking for ways to counter that and not lose clients.

I would imagine other online bookstores, previously not as popular as Amazon, are now frothing to fill the gap.

There may be a hiatus. There may be a downtime. But if Amazon is foolish enough to let some of the best reads on the planet slip through their fingers and slide off their site's pages, then rest assured there are other entreprenurial, just-as-greedy-thank-gawd book site owners ready to jump in and fill the gap.

Greed can be a wonderful thing. Be very greedy, very hungry for good books. Support those sites that provide them with your pocketbook. But recogize that Amazon has a bottom line, like any corporation. It's that bottom line that funds the brightest and best thinking that even created the online bookstore venues in the first place.

For every thing there is a season.

And remember. When life hands you lemons, go find someone to whom life handed vodka.

Namaste, ~Linnea

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Authors' Sites of Excellence

I've always loved the positive attitude embodied in "I don't know, but I know where to find out..." Or even in Jim Cramer's "You've come to the right place!"

Jim Cramer talks about stock tips. We talk about alien romances, paranormal romances, intimate adventure, space opera, space action adventure, futuristics, science fiction romance... and a great deal more.

You've come to the right place if you want to know where some of the best and most informative websites in the science fiction romance genre can be found. Just look at the links in our sidebar!

We have links; links to links; links to blogs, and links to blog links. (We'd welcome more, by the way.)

Jacqueline Lichtenberg has an amazing chart on the intergalactic quality simegen site, which identifies authors and their genres and subgenres.

Linnea Sinclair put the original chart together, and Linnea's site is well worth a visit for it's gobsmacking, out-of-this-world splendour, and all the really useful advice and insights it offers.

Angela Verdenius also has a chart of Paranormal/SFR authors. I believe Angela and Linnea independently came up with similar, useful ideas at the same time, which so often happens in our world.

Also, look out for;;

Best wishes,
Rowena Cherry

Saturday, March 29, 2008

How much?

I'm in Jacksonville FL at the Southern Lights conference this weekend. I don't have a craft post prepared but a question that arose last night in a discussion. How much romance do you want in your sci-fi? Or on the other hand, how much sci-fi do you want in your romance? Should the romance take center stage? Or the technical stuff? Or the story its self. Since this is a growing genre it would be great to know exactly what the reader is looking for and or expects.

Off to hear Suzanne Brockman speak

Thursday, March 27, 2008


This coming Tuesday, April 1, Amber Quill Press ( will release my Lovecraftian romance WINDWALKER’S MATE. This novel revisits one of my favorite themes, union between human and nonhuman beings, although in this case the union is more like rape. As a teenage runaway, Shannon took refuge in a small cult run by the father of Nathan, two years older than she. In a ritual to summon the Windwalker, the entity possessed Nathan, and Shannon became pregnant. Now Nathan’s father, almost five years later, tries to make contact with the little boy, whose existence Nathan has been unaware of. The time for the Windwalker’s child to open the Gate between worlds draws near. I had fun trying to imagine a four-year-old boy who bears the genes of a monster from another space-time continuum. Here’s an excerpt, in which Shannon has just heard thunder from a clear sky and her son Daniel chanting in an unknown language:

She dashed to the window and looked out. She saw no clouds except for a few stray puffs of white. At the same instant, she heard both televisions, in her bedroom and the living room, switch on. A few seconds later, the air conditioner cycled on.

A wind sprang up and lashed the trees. Shannon whirled around to find Daniel still chanting. “What are you singing? Stop it!”

He fell silent and stared at her as if shocked by the rebuke. The TVs and the air conditioner cut off. When she glanced out the window again, she noticed the traffic light in the next block had gone out, too. She heard the squeal of brakes as a car swerved on the way through the intersection.

“Daniel, turn the electricity back on.” The shrill pitch of her own voice reminded her to take a deep breath.

“I don’t know how.” He sounded close to tears.

Poor kid, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. If he’d done anything at all. Maybe she was losing her mind, to think her child had that kind of power.

“Do you know what did—” she started to ask. She stopped in shock when the sky turned neon purple.

She clenched her fingers on the window sill. The gale still howled around the house, but only there. Branches on trees over a block away didn’t move.

The sky cracked.

She stared in horror at the jagged line of eldritch light. “Make it stop,” she whispered. “Please make it stop.” If the crack widened and that gigantic eye beamed upon her again, she feared she would shatter into a million fragments and never become whole again.

“Mommy?” Daniel’s whimper tore her away from the window.

Falling to her knees, she wrapped him in her arms. “It’s all right.” She rocked him back and forth, praying the lie would become true.

Daniel babbled a string of unintelligible sounds. After a few seconds of silence, he spoke one word. The wind stopped. The sickly light vanished. With a glance over her shoulder, Shannon confirmed that the sky looked normal again. Except that for an instant she saw it as a painted stage backdrop, only a flimsy sheet of cardboard covering black depths of nothingness.

“Honey, can you tell me what just happened?”

“Daddy wanted me to open a door.” He rubbed his eyes and squirmed.

Suppressing a shudder, she relaxed her hold on him. “Don’t do it! It’s dangerous.”

“I can’t. It’s not time yet.”

-end of excerpt-

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Solar Heat

The extremes that an author will go to just to sell a book . . .

Even as I wrote Solar Heat I was imagining how we would make the book video. Most authors do something to promote their books and since I like making the videos, I knew I wanted to do another one. But my last video, KISS ME DEADLY a romantic suspense set on Earth was way easier to figure out than a book that didn’t have one scene on planet Earth!

We needed sets, costumes, makeup and special effects—a tall order for someone who didn’t know anything about this technology three years ago. I decided to start by hiring a specialist to create the spaceship bridge. That had to be the central piece in the video. Next we had to create a giant green screen as a background so we could pop out the actors and replace the green background with otherworldly pictures and videos. To make the greenscreen, my husband painted a bunch of 4 foot by 8 foot pieces of Styrofoam and taped them together. We ended up with a stage about fifty feet long and thirty feet high. For the floor, we painted a huge piece of canvass green.

During this process I sat down and wrote a script. The hard part was trying to write a story that represented Solar Heat when I didn’t know what we could do technically. I hired a male and female actor to play the parts. Luckily these same models were also on the book cover (thank you Tara—my daughter the photographer) so we had continuity. For costumes, I found these wonderful shirts that looked like uniforms and I lucked out when the female model had a friend who designed clothing that looked futuristic.

We actually shot all the scenes in one day. My son and his friend filled in as the bridge crew. All the scenes were shot in front of the greenscreen, except the boardroom scene, the bar scene and the couch scene.

And then a very talented friend Mike, who has a camera shot the scenes. For the shower, my husband rigged a hose in front of the greenscreen and we dropped in the background later. The bridge scene where the ship is under attack was interesting. My son and the hero stood on a trailer. We put green canvas under their feet and behind them. Then my husband used a forklift to lift one end of the trailer and dropped it. Where the actors are catching their balance, they look real because we actually dropped them. Later Mike popped the actors out of the green background and put them on the bridge. And then with some technological wizardry, he shook the ship to match the actors’ motions.

And Mike did all the special effects and the sound. Some of the scenes that flash by in a second of viewing take weeks of work. And all this was done to grab readers’ attention so they will buy the book. I’ll bet you didn’t know it was so hard to sell a book!

All of my book videos are posted on my website. You can see them at



Julie Leto is doing some great giveaways at her blog,

starting today!

She's not only giving away a chapter a day of her upcoming paranormal
romance, PHANTOM PLEASURES, but she's also sweetening the pot by offering a
$20 Amazon/Borders gift card per day to one winner per day, chosen from the people who comment.


1. One winner chosen from each day’s comments
2. Winner chosen by Julie Leto
3. Winner choice is final.
4. Winner must come back to Plotmonkeys on the subsequent day to see if they won...Julie will not contact the winner outside of the blog posting, except to make arrangements to send the prize.
5. No purchase necessary (though this goes without saying because they can’t buy anything on my blog!)



Vampires are so five minutes ago...
From NY Times Bestseller Julie Leto (blog)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Little Something Came Up PART I

Linnea did a great job tackling this subject, but let me go back to Cindy's original post on torturing characters.

Cindy Holby wrote in her Saturday March 22nd Post on torturing characters:
Character is what rises to the top when put under extreme pressure. We all would like to think that we would react "heroically" when we are put into life or death situations. But until we actually experience it we do not know how we will act.

Cindy's right. Pressure builds when old, internal issues come boiling to the top as things go wrong on the way to an important karmic appointment.

But this is one of those eternal truths writers have to learn the hard way.

Yes, we know we love books that torment the most lovable hero. Yes, we swoop along on that terrible ride pretending we could do as well or better in real life, gasping at the twists and turns, and squirming in our seats.

But now we're facing that dreaded blank white computer window, determined to write one of "those" stories -- and we don't know what to put.

Who is this guy? Where did he come from? Why is he scared blue-lipped? What would it take to make him pee his pants? And how can we ever think of it?

You can't just pick a few traits arbitrarily and expect them to go together to create the image of a great guy in readers' minds.

Human beings (or believable aliens) are made up of traits that "go together" -- that form a pattern, that have something to do with each other, that are not arbitrary or random. That underlying template, archetype, pattern is what we mean when we say "character" and what Cindy meant when she said "character rises to the top".

What "rises" -- what becomes visible -- is the "right stuff" inside the character, the guts, and other body parts we use to represent strength, judgement, moral fiber, kindness, motivation, values.

The character is recognized by the reader/viewer as "real" because the traits revealed fit together to form a recognizable pattern. This can be a pattern we've seen inside ourselves and know that nobody else sees -- or it can be a pattern we've seen in others -- yearning for such a person to discern our own secret pattern.

How do you figure out what collection of traits would make your reader's eyeballs glue to your pages, yearning for your character to recognize their internal "right stuff?"

That question is not a "craft" question. It can't be answered by craft.

It is an "art" question -- and believe it or not, it does indeed have an answer that can be learned and applied by anyone who can write a literate English sentence.

The "art" of story is a huge, deep question that spreads far and wide into the realm of philosophy, spirituality, and even politics.

How do you "become" a writer? How do you get to where the writers you admire so much are? Where do you go to learn to write?

You can find most community colleges and even universities offering some courses in writing, (some in business writing or journalism which actually pays better or steadier). But many of those courses are titled "Creative Writing" -- which is not (trust me) what you really want if you aspire to become a commercial writer of fiction.

For each field or genre of writing, there is a system of thinking that generates the words. Fiction is no exception, at least not commercial fiction.

I've written extensively about the art behind the craft of writing in my review column.

Many writers do their "art" subconsciously and speak at length about how they just feel their way into a story, maybe write bits and pieces out of sequence, -- or it all just appears in mind, a character demands to have his story told. But not everyone who has that experience turns out a piece of truly commercial fiction.

What's the difference between what wells up from your subconscious and what wells up from Cindy Holby's subconscious?

It's not just craft -- though without craft even the best stuff won't make it on the commercial market. Today's readers are spoiled by a consistent level of craftsmanship in published books.

One reason e-book sales haven't grown faster is that initially many e-books had that inspiration and art behind them, but lacked craft. Readers weren't satisfied.

That's changing and the competition is getting tougher.

So where can a writer go to learn what other writers are born knowing?

Philosophy. Religion. Anthropology. Even TV News.

Since I have a mathematical bent of mind, I found astrology to be the quickest path to making sense out of Internal and External conflict and how it generates plot -- in an artistic way. But I read a lot of psychology textbooks before I hit on astrology. You can learn all of Astrology by reading biographies, psychology, sociology, history and anthropology. Or you can take the shortcut and learn astrology which combines all of that with Art.

See for lessons.

Now what is "art" - in general and in specific.
You might say Art is a language -- a language of the soul, perhaps. Art is a method of depicting something intangible and literally un-know-able -- i.e. something that can't be accessed via the cognitive faculty which produces "knowledge."

A Seer, a Prophet, a Wise Woman, (or a writer) apprehends a pattern that subsumes all reality, a prototype of reality -- the template upon which our lives are based, and struggles mightily to convey that Vision to people who have no Eye to see it with.

That "struggle" is not a conscious struggle. It comes from the same place inside us that the need to talk comes from -- as a baby learns to say words, an artist learns to "say" characters, form, motion, color, dimension, beauty and ugliness contrasted, balanced or over-balanced.

What that Seer produces in her struggle is what we call Art. It is a language in which we discuss emotion, feelings, aspirations, dreams, and hope.

Think shamanistic storytelling.

Think Bard.

Like any language, it has grammar and syntax, vocabulary where "words" are related to each other in a systematic way.

In the world of Art, baby-talk doesn't sell books.

Erudite and facile use of the language of art, use that profiles and displays the art form itself as an end in itself, does indeed sell books.

TO BE CONTINUED NEXT TUESDAY - if Rowena remembers to post Part II. I will be teaching at Ecumenicon Thursday March 27-30, back at my desk on April 2.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, March 24, 2008

Oh, The Pain...Characters and Conflict

I haven't skinned a character alive, as Cindy notes in her recent blog entry but as she also notes, it's not just the physical pain we authors put our characters through that creates workable story conflict. It's not the car going over the cliff, the "Die Hard" style big rig being chased by a jet fighter, the super heroine leaping tall buildings in a single bound. If that's all conflict was, then most novels would be comic books.

Conflict is both external and internal. And quite honestly, the internal is the more powerful. Because two people must care, think and feel this external conflict or it's useless: the character and the reader.

Let's take the example of the car going over a cliff. Your character, Mortimer, is in the car. But Mortimer is an immortal alien being incapable of dying. Mortimer knows this so he has no fear, no worries. Okay, he'll need to find a new car--and his insurance rates will likely go up--but he'll walk away unscathed.

If your reader knows Mortimer can't die, then s/he, too, walks away unscathed.

If your reader knows nothing about Mortimer--ie: you introduce this scene on page one--s/he doesn't care enough about the character to give a fig if Mort lives or dies.

See, there's no internal connection. If there's no internal connection, there's no internal conflict. External conflict--without a matching internal conflict--falls flat.

Cindy/Colby wrote: "Star Shadows is the story of Elle and Boone but it also introduces Zander who loses his memory in the first half of the book and then becomes an assasin. He has no recall of learned boundaries from his youth so therefore he does not know why or how he has become a killer. All he knows is kill or be killed. "

Ah, see? We're introduced to Zander as a character. Then he loses his memory. We have an experience of him, we get into his skin, we feel his loss, we feel his confusion. Now, put him in that vehicle hurtling over a cliff just as he's on his way to the clinic where his memory will be restored, and he'll be made whole--and we care. (And that's not what happens in Colby's book but I'm hijacking her character to make a point.)

Yes, it will hurt when he dies or is injured or in some way prevented from reaching his "goal" of memory restoration, but the physical pain is only powerful because of his internal pain of failure. Of loss. Of "I almost had it. I coulda been a contender. I shoulda had a V-8..."

Cindy asked about Branden Kel-Paten. For those of you who've been on sabbatical to the outer reaches of the Gensiira System and have no idea who he is, he's one of the male protagonists in Games of Command. He's also a biocybe: half human, half android. Not his choice, mind you, and we learn this and we learn about his fears and his feelings of inadequacy and his hatred of being a "freak" in the early chapters of the book. It's all internal conflict for Branden. Which was fun because physically he's incredibly powerful. He is half machine and as such, runs faster, jumps higher and does all that kind of top notch "Keds' sneakers" kind of stuff. He's one tough dude. He's also a total softie underneath.

Branden as a character is a poster boy for external/internal conflict. His outside is the invincible military officer. His inside is a mass of self-doubt and loathing because of what his outside is.

There's a universality in this and Cindy touches on that point as well in her blog. All of us differ in physical strength, depending on our height, age, weight, training, etc.. Rowena towers over me. Cindy and I are about the same height but she's much younger than I am. These are physical differences that make us unlike. But inside Rowena, Cindy and Linnea may well live very similar internal feelings. Self-doubt pretty much only comes in one size and flavor, and it doesn't really change with age or location. So while we as readers may not always understand what it's like to be in a car hurtling over a cliff, we all understand what it's like to feel ashamed.

There's a universality in internal conflict. It's a one size fits all set of feelings. It's a genderless, timeless, applicable-to-all-ethnicities experience.

That's why you can't have true workable conflict in a novel without it. ~Linnea

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Where the UFOs are

I am thrilled to announce that Preditors and Editors has awarded my site the Author's Site Of Excellence Award.

Needless to say, I am thrilled, and would like to thank anyone who had anything to do with this great honor!

Now, for the UFOs....

It makes sense to me that different aliens would use different methods to land on Earth, which is why I love to watch The Discovery Channel and also The Science Channel.

In my next alien romance (KNIGHT'S FORK) I have an Imperial war-star, or rather, one or two of its foray shuttles; a Saurian craft; and a Volnoth "stargoer" ... all with pressing, secret business on our planet.

The Volnoth vessel uses electro-magnetic propulsion, and uses large, deep oceans as inconspicuous runways.


North London
Hampstead High Street
Two weeks later

“Read all abaaaht it!” a boy of papers shouted by a strange, half-tented cart from which passers-by could exchange very small pieces of folded paper for very large, folded stacks of dirty paper, which they would then unfold, and look at.

Prince Thor-quentin was fascinated. He loitered to observe the folly of mankind. His attention was captivated by more efficiently folded papers. They were colored, and wrapped in a clear foil to stop them flipping in the London street wind. Many of these colored papers showed bare-chested males, proudly displaying their favorite exercise equipment, or modest females in heat, bending over conveniently placed vehicles.

The boy of papers varied his cries of what was interesting.

“Antipodean Alarm!” he wailed. “Australian Air Force Authorities allay anxiety over alleged alien…”

So many big A-words! Thor-quentin thought.

Then, he caught sight of the grainy, blurry, black-and-white photograph. The boy of papers might call the object diving into the sea a “twisted, distorted weather balloon”, but Prince Thor-quentin knew it for what it was. A Volnoth, water-capable shuttle.

He had practiced Djinncraft before on impressionable, sacrificial virgins. He’d never imagined that he’d use Djinncraft to obtain something as worthless as a pile of dirty papers.

Approaching the boy of papers at a suitable lull in the boy’s passing trade, Thor-quentin murmured, ‘I will take. You will not cry out.”

The boy of papers promptly turned aside, folded from the mid-section and vomited into the slightly lower level of the trafficway.

Slack damn! Less force is required in this lesser gravity, Thor-quentin noted. He helped himself to a selection of the folded stacks of papers, and passed a hand over the wad of small, purplish papers, as if he might be making a fair exchage like everyone else. In addition, since he could, he took one catalogue of the local females in heat.

Viz-Igerd had come after him. He needed a better place to hide.


’Rhett was returning on the Underground from St. Catherine’s House, where he’d been looking up the births of girl babies in Cambridge in 1962, whether born, admitted, abandoned, or given up for adoption.

The tomes had been huge, and the print had been large, but the keeping of the “Creed Registers” had only resumed in 1962, and it was hard to know whether or not the books were complete.

He knew that Freya had been admitted to Addenbrookes on Trumpington Street. He was not sure of the date, and since she had been presumed indigent and had no name when admitted –or when discharged-- it was hard to be sure.

Because the mother had no name, the baby, which was officially admitted upon birth, also had no name.


A copy of The Sun newspaper lay abandoned on the seat beside him. He glanced at it. The headline, “Antipodean Alarm!” did not alarm him. The accompanying photograph did.

“Damnation!” he murmured, recognizing the aerodynamic, aggressive-squid contours of a Star-goer with electro-magnetic propulsion systems, capable of using oceans as an underwater runway to achieve supersonic speed and necessary velocity to escape the planet’s gravity when it left. “That looks Volnoth!”

Best wishes for a very happy Easter!
Rowena Cherry

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Craft, Torturing your characters or developing inner conflcit

It has been pointed out to me in several recent talks I've given that I have built a reputaion for torturing my characters. When someone comments upon it I pause and think. "Well I did skin Zane alive in Whirlwind. And he deserved it too. He's been nothing but a trouble maker for six books." When writing that I had to think long and hard about acutally doing it. I knew it was graphic and would be a horrible experience for anyone to go through. Then I decided yep, just go for it. You can do it. He's your character. You can do what ever you want.

My editor said that I gave her nightmares while she was reading Rising Wind. There were some graphic examples of torture used by the Shawnee in the book taken straight from acutal accounts. My hero, Connor, in Rising Wind did not get tortured. I even had a chance to give him a lashing and I rescinded it. I figured Connor was torturing himself enough. Or I was torturing him.

The method of torture I used on Connor was self doubt. Through out the entire story his biggest fear was he would be captured and tortured. And when it happen he would show fear. I also set the story up so that in the prologue (see last weeks post) it showed Connor's father dying bravely at Culloden. In the first chapter he talks about his mother also dying bravely when hung by English soldiers for wearing the plaid. Thus I've set up Connor's internal conflict. His own form of self torture.

Star Shadows is the story of Elle and Boone but it also introduces Zander who loses his memory in the first half of the book and then becomes an assasin. He has no recall of learned boundaries from his youth so therefore he does not know why or how he has become a killer. All he knows is kill or be killed. He knows he hates what he is but it is also impossible for him to die. Plenty of self loathing and internal conflict going on in his mind. I also added a torture scene where he is tied down and raped by a woman that he later kills. Zander is set up to torture himself with all he has done when he finally regains his memory. I know this is why every one who has read Star Shadows is asking for Zander's book.

Its not about the torture. Its not about the internal conflict. Its about experiencing the journey as the characters examine themselves as they come up against their greatest fears and how they conquer those fears.

Character is what rises to the top when put under extreme pressure. We all would like to think that we would react "heroically" when we are put into life or death situations. But until we acutally experience it we do not know how we will act.

I guess you can say that is our own form of self toture. Our own self doubt.

Linnea? I loved to hear what you have to say about Kel-Patten and his interal conflict.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Form and Function

Reading COMMUNIPATH WORLDS, the omnibus edition of Suzette Haden Elgin's Coyote Jones novels, reminded me of how short mass market SF books used to be. Three full-length novels fit into one average-size paperback! Reflecting on the phenomenon of how the typical mass market novel has lengthened since the 1960s and early 70s led me to speculate about the influence of a book's format on its content. Think of the “triple-decker” novels of the nineteenth century, heavy on long descriptions and exposition. Nowadays, for instance, greater length allows for more complex plots and additional subplots. And might publishers' expectation of longer books in SF and fantasy lead or contribute to greater focus on character development? E-publishing accommodates books of widely varying lengths, from stand-alone short stories and novellas (thus offering markets for short works independent of traditional periodicals and anthologies) to novels of much higher word count than a paperbound book could economically comprise. How have these variations in length affected plot and characterization? Moreover, e-publishers from the beginning have embraced types of fiction major publishers eschewed as too unconventional, unclassifiable, or simply belonging to a currently "unpopular" genre. (Before paranormal romance soared in popularity, its fans knew they could find the desired books online. Recently, Regency romance fans are discovering the same source for their fiction fix.) Hence, e-pubs pioneered the cross-genre fiction trend that has triggered the explosion of new subgenres such as paranormal romance and urban fantasy.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What is Science Fiction - Really?

I just noticed we reached 500 posts on this blog. Wow.

From Star Trek V: The Final Frontier:

Near the end, they've finally made their way to the origin of God and a very imposing entity demands their starship.

Kirk: Excuse me, I have a little question. What does God need a starship for?

I may not have the quote exactly right, but to me this question bores to the heart of the essence of Science Fiction.

Science is a method of organizing knowledge, and fiction is a method of hypothesizing, of imagining. They are both cognitive methodologies.

Theodore Sturgeon (the noted SF writer who contributed AMOK TIME to Star Trek: The Original Series) used the symbol of a capital Q with an arrow through it to encapsulate the entire SF reader's lifestyle -- "Ask The Next Question" is the meaning of the Q with the Arrow.

(more detail at: )

Theodore Sturgeon wore a silver Q with an arrow through it around his neck for years.

In science and math, we learn that framing the question is actually the biggest part of the answer itself. Ask the question correctly, and you will penetrate to the heart of the matter.

In the study of science, we are drilled with this methodology of question formulation. It is the core of every science course all the way through college. The method of question formulation is the key to every mid-term and Final exam and ultimately Ph.D. thesis defense. The method becomes second nature.

In fact, I believe that it is not possible to LEARN this method. I have noticed that professors of different sciences and arts demonstrate markedly different question-formulation methodologies, and in college I learned to spot a person's major by their method of formulating questions (for example a Math Major and a Physics Major asking questions in a German course).

We are each born with a certain style of thinking. It is an innate trait of personality. It won't ever amount to anything without that honing and drilling and pounding practice given to majors in the subject -- but you won't complete the major unless you have the trait.

For that reason, I have found a number of novels (not all Romances, either) that SAY a character is a physicist -- but he thinks like an anthropologist, so I don't believe in the character. I have read award winning, best selling SF where we are told the lead character is an anthropologist -- but she thinks like a language major, so I don't believe it.

So in STAR TREK: THE FINAL FRONTIER, Kirk illustrates the Science Fiction thinking methodology (which as far as I know isn't taught in any university -- you either come with it, or you don't do well in that school). It is something like "thinking outside the box" -- but it is a lot more than that. The best place I've seen it described and demonstrated is in the winner of the first Hugo Award, THEY'D RATHER BE RIGHT.

That is what Kirk illustrates with this question formulated in the midst of action, threat, overwhelming personal experience.

The key to being able to perform at this level is the ability to keep one's critical thinking faculties engaged despite emotional tsunamis sweeping through the body. And for some people, the key to that is ASK THE NEXT QUESTION. Practice asking chains of questions the next time you hear Barak Obama speak - especially if you're in the audience. Any politician will do for practice, but he's the best I've heard in a long time at disengaging the audience's critical faculties.

Formulating those little questions while under fire should be the cardinal lesson we all take away from any film and apply to our daily lives: ASK THE NEXT QUESTION and please DON'T STOP THERE! Keep asking the next and the next question.

The nature of the universe is such that there is no end to the questions once you've picked up on a curiosity, an incongruity, a discrepancy between your own visualization of the macro-cosmic All and that of someone you are listening to. By asking those questions, you learn more about yourself and the universe than about the person you are listening to.

So using this definition, that SF is a style of meta-cognition blending science and imagination, we see that putting a simple love story in a space ship, or running us around from world to world "out there" instead of city to city on this planet does not make a story into SF.

To be SF at all, the story has to take us from here and now to there and then by a recognizable route (such as If Only ... What if... If this goes on ...) that starts and ends with one of those pesky little questions.

Note that Gene Roddenberry sold STAR TREK as "Wagon Train To The Stars" -- "Wagon Train" was a hugely successful, long-long running TV Series in the anthology format with an ensemble cast plus guest stars each week. At the time Roddenberry first marketed Star Trek to TV, the only shows networks would consider buying were Westerns.

Cable was not a going industry then, so it was only broadcast networks that needed to draw over 20 million HOUSEHOLDS to keep a show on the air. Today it's like I think 3 or 5 million households and the US population has more than tripled - I gave the statistics in a previous post here.

So Roddenberry sold Star Trek as a western in space -- which is exactly what most people thought SF was, just westerns in space (which was in fact sort of true because only westerns in space were bought by editors, unless they made a mistake.)

Then the network INSISTED on eliminating Spock -- the emotionally normal Vulcan-Human halfbreed -- because racial intermarriage was a forbidden topic on TV.

(Uhura kissing a white guy was avante guarde and dangerous enough to get the show cancelled -- but they boldly went ...)

Likewise the network INSISTED on eliminating Number One, the emotionless female First Officer because absolutely nobody would ever accept a woman giving orders to a man (mid-1960's remember? I'm not kidding. This is the way it was.) So Roddenberry made a second pilot in which Spock became the First Office who was emotionless and a half-breed, but they didn't mention that just yet.

Roddenberry had to fight tooth and nail to keep Spock, even then. They HATED the whole idea of Spock. But Roddenberry fought to keep Spock because that character, more than Number One, MADE the Western in Space into SF! Why? Because Spock was also the Science Officer, and non-human. That one character created a show which could not be described as A Western In Space -- the West had Indians and Indian scouts and half-breed Indians, and Oxford educated Indians (like Tonto), but the West had no Vulcans.

And it wasn't until GR asked Theodore Sturgeon to contribute a script that we got Pon Farr and a glimpse of the really alien environment that produced Spock. It took ASK THE NEXT QUESTION to come up with Pon Farr -- and you all know what the 'zines did with that idea.

When the Imagination challenges the generally accepted organization of knowledge, challenges the assumptions behind most people's reality, it produces fertile ground for new SF ideas.

It is the challenging of "the box" from the inside rather than "thinking outside the box" that is the hallmark of the best SF.

Note how THE MATRIX (the movie is a retread of a very old SF concept from pulp days, but I don't have the reference to hand) shows us breaking OUT of the box, as well as INTO it simultaneously. It's popular as SF not because it's new or original, but because it illustrates a metaphor for the cognitive methodology that is at the core of SF.

So, as I wrote above, complete definition of SF:
To be SF at all, the story has to take us from here and now to there and then by a recognizable route (such as If Only ... What if... If this goes on ...) that starts and ends with one of those pesky little questions.

Is that a complete enough definition upon which to create an SFRomance novel? Can anyone define the thinking style behind the Romance novel that has to be synthesized with this definition of SF to produce a precise and comprehensive definition of SFR?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, March 17, 2008

Plots That Work

Again, riding on Cindy's coat tails here...

There is no one right way to plot a book. Like Cindy, I'm a pantser or rather, I was more of a pantser than I am now. I guess I've morphed, after several mutlibook contracts, into a plot-ser. Half plotter, half pantser. Deadlines can have that effect.

But not everyone starts out a pantser. Last summer, author Stacey "The Silver Spoon" Klemstein and I did a plotting workshop at Archon, the science fiction convention held annually just outside St. Louis. Entitled "Plots That Work" we approached the same subject from two different angles: hers and mine.

Here's the breakdown from Stacey's handout:

Stacey Sez…

*Stephen King says, “…my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course).”

*Start with a situation: create a truly difficult situation and watch your characters struggle to find a way out of it. Don’t help them and don’t manipulate the situation to get them out—just watch and write it all down. (I’m paraphrasing Stephen King here, again!) Use “what-if” to test your situation’s strength.

*“Through a mirror, darkly”—Sometimes I can’t see much beyond the initial situation. I know someone is on the run, for example, but I don’t know why. That’s where GMC (Goal, Motivation & Conflict) comes in for each of the main characters, including the antagonist. (I don’t use the word villain because every villain is the hero of his or her own story—at least, that’s the way it should be if you want your hero to have a worthy opponent.)

*Imagine your story on a continuum. Your character is a certain way and in a particular situation at the beginning. Events transpire to change both of those elements, resulting in a changed character and situation by the end.

*Christopher Vogler says there are common elements (events, if you prefer) in every hero’s journey. Changes in the hero’s external situation match up with the changes that are happening inside him or her.

Ordinary World
Call to Adventure
Meeting w/Mentor
Limited awareness of a problem
Increased awareness
etc etc...
Recommended Reading:
The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler
On Writing, Stephen King
Goal, Motivation & Conflict, Debra Dixon
Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

Linnea Sez…

1 – What is a plot? A plot is a series of events—both internal and external—that comprises the character(s)’s journey through the story.

2 – Plot is the power source that makes the story happen. And conflict is the energy fueling that power source.

3 – James Scott Bell (Plot & Structure) sez Plot answers the questions:
· What’s this story about?
· Is anything happening?
· Why should I keep reading?
· Why should I care?

4 – Your plot is inextricably tied to your characterization. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a plot/problem-oriented writer (let’s write a story about an evil galactic empire challenged by a small band of freedom fighters called Jedi Knights) or a character-oriented writer (let’s write a story about a young orphaned man who wants to be a Jedi Knight and help wrestle his world away from the evil galactic empire). It is the main character(s) that the reader will consciously and subconsciously relate to and identify with. Your characters provide the answer to Why should I keep reading? And Why should I care?

5 – Who, What, When, Where, Why & How:
· Who are your characters?
· What is the inciting incident and/or external conflict that launches the story?
· When does the story take place?
· Where does it take place?
· Why does the external conflict threaten your main characters?
· How will your main characters resolved the conflict?

6 – Utilize the Concept of Rising Action. Make it worse, make it worse, make it worse. “How could things get worse? And when is the worst moment for them to get worse?” –Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

7 – “Follow no rule off a cliff.” –C.J. Cherryh

*Recommended Reading:

Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell
Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V Swain
Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass
Prescription for Plotting Popular Fiction, Carolyn Greene

Stacey's into Vogler. I follow Swain. That doesn't make Swain right and Vogler wrong. It means I follow the plotting method that sets me all a-flutter. That works for me. If it works for me, it'll work for my muse.

Follow your muse and the plotting method that sets you a-flutter. You'll be the stronger writer for it.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

To kiss or not to kiss

The Inuit (I hope I've got the politically correct name) and small babies rub noses and seem very happy with that.

Nuzzling and the rubbing together of bodies works for animals.

Considerate boyfriends who have infectious upper-respiratory illnesses but still wish to have sex may refrain from kissing their partners... and misunderstandings may arise from that omission.

So, how important is a lip-lock? Do we need it, anyway, if we are writing a romance? Can one write a successful alien romance without a kiss?

Rowena Cherry

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Craft The Process

I had the great pleasure this week of reading a synopsis for a sci-fi novel that really grabbed me. I won't mention the specifics of it since it is still in the formulative stage but I will say that the concept really impressed me. But I also had to laugh because the author said "I keep adding research." My response it you can add the details in later, just write the story. But thats not how it works for this writer.

There are plotters and there are pantsers. I happen to be a pantser. I have an idea for a story, I know who the characters are in my mind and I sit down and write. Sometimes I have a vague outline. And I mean vague. I think I wrote ten books before I ever wrote a synopsis. I see a few scenes in my mind and I build my story around them. Don't get me wrong, I have plenty of goal, motivation and conflict but its all in my head and I let the characters lead me. At times like these when life keeps throwing me curve balls I wish I was more organized in my writing. It would be great to have all my historical research completed before I begin writing. With the sci-fi I pretty much make it up as I go along, as long as it makes sense in my universe. Which is why my sci-fi romance is heavier on the characters than the technical. That stuff gives me a headache. I usually will just say place or thing in my manuscript and go back and add it in after I get through the story, or when I hit a mental block.

Then there are plotters. I know a writer that writes a thirty page outline. The writer who showed me his story was the same way. They are very organized and have each plot point labeled down to the exact page in the book. Plotters tend to be heavier on the plot that the character and usually go back and layer in character scenes, or what I call date scenes. These are scenes that develop the relationship between your two main characters.

As you can see from all the posts on craft we all have our different techniques. One is not better than the other (unless you are stuggling then you will bemoan the fact that you aren't the other way) Its just you know what works for you. There are all kinds of classes on plotting and development and how to write great characters. I know a writer who has to have a complete bulliten board done of her characters, down to what kind of ice cream they like and where they went on vacation when they were seven. It works for her. You have to find what works for you. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to improve it. I now at least try to have more of an outline going. And I get all caught up in following research trails and love to pick up history and picture books from the sale tables at B&N and Borders. But I also know I will always be a pantser. A what if type of writer.

The funny thing is that when a book is done well, you can't tell what technique the writer used. Because both work and work well.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Currently Reading

Sorry I didn't post yesterday. This is a heavy time of year at the day job. I've recently been reading the Coyote Jones novels by Suzette Haden Elgin, in an omnibus of all three books called COMMUNIPATH WORLDS. The first novel, THE COMMUNIPATHS, is available for free here (with a donation option):

Although most human beings in this distant future have at least a trace of "psibility" of some kind, the Communipaths are incredibly powerful telepaths who make interstellar society possible by sending messages instantaneously over vast distances. The iconoclastic Coyote Jones, a uniquely powerful projective telepath but with very little capacity to receive telepathy, carries out delicate missions for the galactic government. Each novel introduces us to the culture of a different planet. In the first book, for example, Coyote has the assignment of retrieving a rogue telepath whose transmissions are disrupting galactic communication. She turns out to be a baby under a year old living in a religious commune. When she is forcibly taken to be trained as a Communipath, her mother, who also has extremely strong psi powers, is determined to get her back. If you read the first novel online and enjoy it, you can find used copies of the trilogy for sale (it's out of print).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Prologues and Spoilers

I dropped a comment on Cindy's very provocative Saturday post (see below) on Prologues and Epilogues, and another on Linnea's post for Monday, preceding this post.

I didn't mention that if you use a "prologue" you really should also need (because of the story structure) an "epilogue".

As a reviewer, I generally see "Prologue" and flip back to look for an "Epilogue" before deciding whether to read the prologue, and if there's an epilogue I read it first, then flip to the prologue to see if it matches correctly. If there is no epilogue, I don't read the prologue. Or if the epilogue is not a natural follow on from the prologue, I don't read the prologue.

When I come to a point in the story that needs the information in the prologue, I might consult the prologue -- or I might just set the book aside unfinished if it's too flawed to review.

You see, what generally goes into a prologue (especially one required by an editor who doesn't know how to "fix" your manuscript in time for publication) is what is usually labeled a "spoiler."

"Spoiler" is a term that cropped up at the beginnings of the Internet when fans began discussing books, film and TV across time zones. It turned out that a number of people feel it "spoils" a story to know what is going to happen.

Classic literature that uses the prologue/epilogue structure telegraphs to the reader that this character will or won't survive, that the events of the story are actually caused by or interfered with from someone else in some other place or time, or that sets up the reader to understand the characters before the story begins instead of unfolding their quirks one at a time during a smooth flowing narrative.

The prologue/ epilogue structure was invented because most people's story-enjoyment is enriched and enhanced by knowing what is going to happen before they've read the story.

If knowing the key shocker or twist event of a story "spoils" the effect of the story, then why do audiences flock to performances of Shakespeare's plays? Why do congregations read the same portions of the Bible over and over in a yearly cycle? Why did Star Trek and Star Wars fans fill movie theaters again and again, chanting the words with the characters?

Why do people, battered and bruised from a week's work, curl up with an old movie they've seen a dozen times? Why do people buy DVDs of films they've seen in the theater? Why do people buy the book before going to see the film? Why do theaters fill for classical ballet performances? Why does TV rerun series episodes? And why do people re-read novels?

Such human behavior telegraphs that repetition enriches the experience, that knowing before hand what is going to happen doesn't spoil it but actually increases the impact and thus the enjoyment.

Well-designed prologue/epilogue bookends tell you whether the writer knows what they're doing with the specific story-form, and thus whether the story between them is worth your precious time to read.

They tell you what that story is about, and what the major change is going to be. But they don't tell you how it happens or what it feels like to undergo that change. A good prologue/ epilogue pair sets the reader up to thoroughly enjoy the story and come back to read it again and again.

Finding a writer who can handle the prologue/epilogue pairing is like finding a great restaurant. The steak was great - let's have the stew next time. You come back again and again to the source, read the book over and over, savour that prologue and epilogue in depth and yearn for sequels.

People disparage the Romance field, the SF and Fantasy fields, and inexplicably the SFR or Alien Romance field as fluff, escapist, no-account waste of time garbage.

But the truth is, enduring classics in these fields, and most especially in SFR and Alien Romance, are not only possible, but currently hitting the market. This cross-genre field is building up to become a source of important classics for future generations to study.

The hallmark of a classic is that it is re-readable and speaks to the essentials of human nature even across generations. That even when you know exactly what's going to happen, you still get "in the mood" to reread that book, and you savour it more each time.

Now you can argue that the reason for this re-read - rerun phenomenon is that people want to relive that moment when they first hit the shocker of a twist without warning. And thus warning someone before hand "spoils" that moment, vitiates the impact, and therefore they will never re-read the work.

But if that were true, why would schools teach ABOUT King Lear before taking the class to see the play? Or examine the plot of SWAN LAKE before taking the class to see the ballet?

The only instance I can think of where knowing the twist or who dies or what the shocker moment is SPOILS the enjoyment of the film or book is when the film or book consists of nothing but the twist, shocker, or surprise ending.

A mystery is not spoiled by knowing who the killer is (you're supposed to figure it out before the detective does) -- unless that's ALL the enjoyment the story can deliver.

A mystery is about the psychological duel between perpetrator and detective, and it is the duel, the search for clues, and the personality of the detective (and perp) that makes it interesting.

An "open form" mystery like COLOMBO has a "prologue" where the murder takes place, then Colombo comes and solves it, but we don't usually see the "epilogue" of the court sentencing. We're supposed to imagine the epilogue to make room for commercials.

PERRY MASON showed the murder, then the solving, then the court battle (usually, not always in that order) because Mason was a defense lawyer, not the detective per se. It is the HOW the wrong person was charged, and how that person was exonerated that is interesting.

If the "how" was not the interesting part, why would reprints of Sherlock Holmes still be available? Why would that antiquated Detective Series be made into a TV series with Jeremy Brett starring as Sherlock Holmes? Why would "Murder She Wrote" reruns be on almost as much as "I Love Lucy?"

Lucy is funny even when you already know what the gag line will be at the end. How can that be if it's been "spoiled" by the fact that you know what will happen in advance.

Knowing the answer, the twist, the shocker, does not spoil the mystery, comedy, or drama -- and it does not spoil any story -- unless the story is essentially worthless to begin with.

To expect that if you know a plot twist your enjoyment will be spoiled is to reveal that you prefer to indulge in worthless literature, just as our detractors accuse us of doing when reading SFR or AR -- or SF or Fantasy.

A classic is never damaged by foreknowledge among the readers/viewers. That's the very definition of "classic" -- and in this day and age, there's no reason to spend your time reading anything that isn't of the classic caliber. There are more classics out there than you can read in a lifetime.

Thus the title of my review column is ReReadable Books -- I review books that have that "classic" profile, and that thus can not be "spoiled" by revealing the shocker, the twist, the who dies and who survives, elements of the plot.

So you will find "spoilers" in my column. If that distresses you, you can find the list of books to be reviewed in future months on the column's website and read the books before reading the reviews. In fact, the column is designed for people to get the most out of it by pre-reading the books I "re" view.

In my column, I discuss the invisible links between and among books, TV shows, films, and even non-fiction. The individual works discussed are not nearly as important as the light that each sheds upon the other. I generally don't discuss books in depth in my column if they weren't "classic" material that can't be "spoiled" by knowing some of the content before hand.

I do discuss a few proto-classics, books that are leading an entire field or sub-genre toward producing those treasured and timeless classics. These books, while not classics themselves, are of interest to writers who want to contribute to the shaping of a new classic field. And they aren't easy to "spoil" either.

I generally single out bits of content that might tell the reader whether they want to read that book, or not. And usually there's enough lead time between when the list of books to be discussed is posted online and when the column itself goes up that you can find the books at the library rather than buying them.

For me, the real enjoyment of fiction comes from savouring compositions formed of groups and lists of works. That's because I see the universe as a single unit, an indivisible whole, and I love finding the underlying unifying characteristics of what appear to be disparate, individual things.

If you like that, come look over my column (it's free).

Join the List from that page to be informed when new to-review lists are posted.

Use the left hand nav-bar to look back at columns to 1993. Just because the books are "old" doesn't necessarily mean they're "spoiled."

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Monday, March 10, 2008

First Chapter Foibles

Since Cindy talked about prologues, I'll talk about first chapters. I know we played around with opening lines/scenes a few weeks back. We'll deal less with word choice here and more with content.

One of the biggest problems writers have is where and when to start the story. If you're like me, most of your stories emerge as a serious of scenes or conflicts in your mind--rather like a movie trailer with flashes of action, passion, problems. If you're lucky, the opening scene is in one of those flashes.

I'm rarely lucky. More often, I have to ruminate on the feelings those flashes have given me. I have to let what I see as the conflicts percolate, ferment. I have to get into my characters' skins. Then I have to decide where and when to start the story.

I learned that's easier to decide when I listen to the experts:

"You can start a story in any way and at any point and, regrettably, I've read the manuscripts that prove it," writes Dwight V Swain in his Techniques of a Selling Writer. "But that doesn't mean that some beginnings aren't better (read: 'more effective') than others." To Swain, the more effective technique involves change. "To start a story, a change my prove the trigger for continuing consequences. That is, it must set off a chain reaction. Responding to change, your character must do something that brings unanticipated results. He must light a fire he can't put out."

I love that last line: He must light a fire he can't put out.

"The story starts where the elements that will conflict to generate the plot first come together, eyeball to eyeball," says Jacqueline Lichtenberg on her Sime~Gen writer's school pages. "That contact starts the cause-effect chain which is the plot. The story can't start until that has happened. The story is the sequence of changes inside the character caused by his changing internal conflict. It is SPURRED by confrontation with the external conflict. "

Continuing consequences or cause-and-effect chain... it doesn't matter what you call it. But the impetus is the same. Something significant (to the character) and unexpected happens. This is where you start your story.

"Every good story starts at a moment of threat," writes Jack Bickham in his The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. "Nothing is more threatening than change."

Now, don't be overpowered by the words here: conflict, threat, change. This does not mean you have to start your story with a car going over a cliff. Though that certainly is attention-getting. Threat and change can be small things. They only have to be big to your main character. Whatever the threat or change is must matter deeply to your main character. It can be something as innocuous as a change of schedule. Or a cell-phone mistakenly left at home that day. It can be a decision a character makes, believing it's the right decision. But it turns out to be very, very wrong. (IE: the road to hell is paved with good intentions...)

I like to think of the key ingredient of a first chapter as The Point of No Return. From here, your main character has nowhere to go except into more trouble as he or she tries to deal with the change or threat.

However you do it, what happens in that first chapter forces the rest of the book to unfold. It's critical to remember that because one of the more common errors I see in beginning novelists is to start with a lot of backstory, or a travelogue or paragraphs and paragraphs of setting description. They don't get to the change, the impetus for the conflict, until chapter 3 (and many an agent or editor will tell you that beginning writers' manuscripts can almost all have the first two chapters deleted and be the better for it--for just that reason).

"Fiction looks forward, not backward," Bickham writes. "When you start a story with background information, you point the reader in the wrong direction, and put her off. If she had wanted old news, she would have read yesterday's newspaper."

I've used exactly those techniques in every one of my published novels. In Finders Keepers, Captain Trilby Elliot's routine repairs on her ship are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of an enemy ship...that crashes. And presents her with a wounded survivor. In Gabriel's Ghost, Captain Chaz Bergren's daily fight to survive on a prison planet is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a former enemy--who she believed to be dead. In An Accidental Goddess, Gillie Davre wakes up in a space station sickbay--three hundred and forty two years later. In Games of Command, Captain Tasha Sebastian learns she's been busted down to the rank of commander and now must work side by side with a former enemy. And in The Down Home Zombie Blues, Commander Jorie Mikkalah arrives on a planet to find her undercover agent is dead and a key piece of equipment is now in the hands of the locals.

Each of my main characters handles the change by starting a fire she can't put out. Every one of these changes put my main characters eye to eye with the cause of the conflict.

Backstory, history and setting are all woven in as the characters act and respond. As they move from one problem to the next. As they take one step forward and two steps back. As conflict builds. Until by the end of the first chapter, the character has nowhere to go but into more trouble.

And the reader has no choice but to turn the page to start Chapter Two.

Take a hard and honest look at the first chapter in your unpublished manuscript or work-in-progress. Have you opened at The Point Of No Return? Or have you started with backstory, or have you left your character too many routes of escape, too many options?


Saturday, March 08, 2008

To Prologue or not to Prologue

I like prologues. I think they are a useful tool in writing. When I develop a character in my mind they usually come complete with a history that makes them the person they are when the story takes place. In my first novel, Chase The Wind, I had a prologue that was the entire first half of the book because the story was really about Jenny, not Ian and Faith who died tragically and people cried about. Of course I had no clue then about the craft, I just wanted to tell the story.

I don't always use prologues, only when they are necessary to give some back story that would not come across well in the show/tell part. In Shooting Star I used a prolouge to explain Ruben's history. A story from when he was twelve that explained how he came to be a smuggler. In Star Shadows I did it to give some of the mythology of the planet Circe so the reader would realize the importance of Zander, even though the book was not about Zander but Elle and Boone.

I added a prologue to Forgive The Wind where my hero loses his leg. He lost his leg in a previous book, Crosswinds but it was told from the heroine of that books POV. In Forgive The Wind I wrote the exact same scene but told it from Caleb's POV since Forgive The Wind was his story.

Rising Wind has the most awesome prologue ever. My editor said she would have bought the book on the prologue alone. It described the hero's birth, sat up his future internal conflict and introduced the heroine and antagonist, all on the battlefield of Culloden. I love it when I get it right!

In my current wip I didn't start with a prologue since my hero had been introduced in Rising Wind. Then I realized that the intro was just plain boring. Basically it was a guy looking in a mirror.

Original beginning

“Pride goeth before destruction, John Murray, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
John Murray cast a blond eyebrow askance as his blue eyes switched from his own reflection in the small mirror hanging on the wall to that of his friend. “Quoting scripture again Rory?” he asked. “Did you ever think that perhaps you should have pursued a career in the church instead of the King’s army?”
“You forget, my friend, I have the misfortune of being a second son,” Rory replied, shouldering John aside from the mirror so he could arrange his own brown locks to his satisfaction. “Which means my life, alas, was predestined from the start.” Rory completed his hair and placed his hat at a jaunty angle atop his head. “And since I have no control over my destiny, I will be off to see what she has in store for me.” Rory threw up a mock salute and with his hand on his sheathed saber to keep it from catching on the door, left the narrow room that the two men shared.
“Destiny is what we make of it!” John shouted after him and returned to his perusal of his image. “Or so we tell ourselves,” he reminded his reflection quietly less someone walking by caught him talking to himself. That would not do at all.

It's okay. You find out the important information about John but it doesn't suck you into the story. So I added a prologue of something that happens later in the book. John's turning point and the reason he was such a jerk in Rising Wind. By adding this bit I also gave the reader something to think about. Why did this happen? How? When? Hmmm, maybe I should keep reading to find out.

Aberdeen. Scotland, 1773
A fine mist fell. John Murray could not help but shiver in his shirtsleeves as he stepped out into the damp gray gloom of early morning. A shudder moved down his spine as his eyes fell upon the post planted in the middle of the court yard at Castlehill. The ground around it was trampled, torn, and filled with the muck from the mix of rain and free flowing blood. Ewain Ferguson’s blood. No comfort for him there as his blood would soon join it.
Was she watching? His blue eyes scanned the ranks of his peers, all standing at attention in the despicable weather, all surely cursing his name because they were given orders to rise early this miserable morning and watch his punishment.
Where was she? Surely they would force her to watch since it was her fault he was here in the first place. Surely they made her watch her brother’s lashing as it was his fault that two men now lay dead.
There. He saw her. Standing straight and as tall as her petite frame would allow next to the General who was magnanimous in his show of mercy towards her. She was a woman after all, and nothing more than an instrument in the treachery of her clansmen.
Her hair was plastered down against her head instead of the mass of springy curls that framed her face like sunlight. This morning it seemed darker than its usual reddish blonde, whether from the rain, or the doom and gloom that hung over the courtyard, he could not tell. Her dress was stained dark with blood and the neckline gaped open, torn by him in his haste the night they were together. Of course she would have no way to mend it so it hung open, teasing him, tormenting him, just as she did the first time he met her. She had gotten into his head that day, damn her and all her clan before her. She had no choice but to live with the state of her dress since her hands were tied before her. Even though the distance between them was great he could feel her deep brown eyes upon him. That gave him a measure of satisfaction. A small measure at that but something to hang on to considering his dire straights.
If only they would lash her also. Did she not deserve it? Was not she as guilty as her brothers and her father in the planning and the plotting and the betrayal?
John’s stomach clenched in anger at the thought. No. It would not do to rip her pale, delicate skin. Knowing her as he did he knew that she would rather have the lashing herself than watch it. She would suffer more that way. She deserved to suffer for what she’d done.
“Best get on with it lad,” Sergeant Gordon said. “Dreading it only makes it worse.”
John ripped his eyes from his desperate examination of her face and looked at the grizzled Sergeant who served as his escort. “Aye, lad,” he said in his hoarse croak. “I’ve felt the lash. “Tis best not to think on it too much. The muscles bunch across your shoulders and it makes it much worse.”
John flexed his shoulders as he took the first step into the courtyard. “How can I not think on it?” He’d seen lashings. Plenty of them. General Kensington was generous in his discipline but he was fair. Twenty lashes was the usual sentence for dereliction of duty.
But he’d added another five because of the circumstance John caught himself in.
Let it be a lesson to all. Do not be swayed by a pretty face and the offer of favors. When John considered the loss of his reputation and the damage to his career, the lashes were nothing in comparison.
Still he knew they were coming and with them would come pain. John flexed his shoulders again. The mist had turned into a drumming rain and his shirt was soaked through. He felt goose bumps on his flesh. He hoped it was the cold that caused them, and not the fear.
“I know what you’re thinking lad,” Sergeant Gordon continued as they walked the innumerable steps to the post. “You’re thinking how will it feel? Will I be able to stand it? Will I cry out like a babe?” Gordon was right all on accounts. John felt a newfound respect for the man as they continued the gut wrenching walk across the yard.
Too soon they stood before the post and Gordon attached the hook to the bonds around his wrists. Gordon nodded to a corporal who jerked on a rope attached to a pulley and John’s arms were stretched above his head and he was pulled against the post. His boots sunk into the muck and the corporal pulled again so that he was stretched up onto his toes.
“Let him down a bit lad,” Gordon instructed. “Ye might find yerself in the same predicament some day.” The corporal relented and John was able to place his feet somewhat firmly on each side of the post.
Gordon looked beyond John to the burly man holding the lash. “He won’t be happy unless you cry out,” he said. “The man loves his job for some reason.” Gordon spat into the mud by John’s feet. “Sadistic bastard,” he added. He slipped a piece of wood in John’s mouth. “Bite down on it lad. Twill help.”
John nodded as he placed his cheek against the post. Gordon stepped behind him and ripped away his shirt. “Think on something else lad,” he added into his ear as the cold rain on his bare back let him know that Gordon had left him.
Think on something else…John blinked the rain off his eyelashes and looked towards General Kensington. He heard the sentence being read by Kensington’s aide, a nephew of the General’s with a squeaky voice and bad skin.
“Do you understand your sentence for the crimes you have committed?” the aide asked, his voice breaking on the last part.
John looked at the General and nodded. The General raised his hand. His face looked sad and John knew that the man was thinking about his father. They were friends. It was the reason Kensington had requested John be assigned to him. What would Kensington have to say to his father about all of this?
Think on something else…He knew the lash was coming. He could sense it coiling and gathering. He heard it whistle threw the air.
John looked at her. Isobel. Izzy. It was her fault. He trusted her with his life, with his soul, with his heart and she betrayed him.
He felt the sting of the lash. His back burned as he was slammed against the post.
“One,” the aide said.
Get on with it…
The next one came in the opposite direction. Marking his back with an X. A target. His eyes stayed on Izzy. How easy a target he’d been for her. He’d fallen like a rock into sea. Sunk right into her plotting. Captured by a winsome smile and deep brown eyes that seemed to hold the secrets of time.
The next one landed straight across, the splinted tail of the whip caressing his ribcage and tearing at the skin on his side as it hit against the bone.
John let out a hiss as he kept his eyes on Izzy. Her eyes seemed huge in her face. At one time he’d thought he could get lost in those eyes.
Damn her eyes. Three lashes and his back felt like it was on fire.
The next one struck straight down his spine. The man was thorough if nothing else. He seemed determined to flay every inch off his back in the strokes allowed. John pressed his wrists against each other as pain shot throughout every inch of his body. He pushed against the post, his body automatically seeking escape from the next blow.
Think on something else.
How could he not be tense when he knew it was coming? He heard the whistle of the lash once again. Felt his flesh tear. Felt the blood pour down his back. He groaned and clenched his teeth tighter into the wood.
Twenty to go. How could he stand it? He had too. Crying wouldn’t stop it. Begging wouldn’t stop it. Screaming his anger at the heavens would not stop it anymore than it would stop the rain that washed against his back and plastered his hair into his eyes.
Izzy. He stared at her, blinking against the rain. It was her fault. All her fault. Every bit of

When I get to this part in the linear story I will write it from Izzy's POV. So hopefully the prologue will draw the reader in and keep them reading until they find out why John got the lashes and what part Izzy played in it.

I've heard a lot of differing opinions on prologues. But if it works for the story then I say use it.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Craft: The First Draft

I’m offering a potentially embarrassing post this week, two blocks of text that illustrate the first-draft writing process, at least as it works for me. I use the procedure in Karen Wiesner’s FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS, in which the initial “draft” is actually a very detailed outline, a scene-by-scene summary of all the action that will comprise the finished novel. Since I enjoy outlining (just call me weird) and suffer from considerable blank-screen anxiety with the first draft, which always goes much slower than I think it should, this method has proven wonderfully helpful for me. I can fool myself that I’m still outlining quite a long way into the process. Here is the opening scene of the werewolf romance I’m now working on, in the “formatted outline” stage:

The glint of a pair of green eyes shone among the trees at the edge of the parking lot. From his observation point in the shadow of his car, Raoul watched the she-wolf slink, step by cautious step, into the open. With the park closed for the night, the lot was deserted except for his vehicle and an economy compact with a rear door ajar and interior lights off. Having watched her from a distance many times before, he knew why she left her car in that condition.

Because even in human form he had superhuman night vision, he could easily see the auburn-pelted wolf approaching from the wooded area of the park. Her eyes, hazel in normal light, glowed green in the dark. He thought about how he'd been watching her for years, but this would be the first time she'd ever seen him. Kevin had asked Raoul to keep an eye, from a discreet distance, on both of his children. Raoul had met the boy a few times but had kept aloof from the girl. Still, from what he'd seen, he couldn't help marveling at the way she had mastered her condition to the extent she had, with no help at all.

He stepped out of his hiding place with the sealed envelope in his hand. Her scent came to him, even in his human shape. It reminded him of his friend Kevin, yet with overtones of femaleness that tantalized his senses. The she-wolf stopped short and shied at the sight and smell of Raoul.

“Wait. I don't mean you any harm. I know what you are. I'm a friend of your father.”

She stared at him, her nostrils flaring and lips curling back from her fangs. He sensed her fear and suspicion.

“I have bad news. Your father is dead.”

(end of excerpt)

Now here’s the completed first draft (or, as I think of it draft 1.5) as it currently stands. Since all the plotting work has been done, at a preliminary phase in which a false step doesn’t require major tearing apart and rebuilding, the second draft (ideally) should entail only cleaning up inconsistencies, refining language, and elaborating on scenes that prove to be too sketchy, especially as regards emotional and sensory detail (which I always catch myself skimping on at first):

Green eyes glinted among the trees at the edge of the parking lot. Shielded by the bulk of his car, Raoul watched the beast lurking in the shadows. Even with the floodlights turned off for the night, he had no trouble spotting the auburn-pelted she-wolf in the glow of the half-full moon. Having tracked her many times before, he knew her routine. She visited this park regularly. The patch of tame woods gave her space to run. After she'd luxuriated in the freedom of her animal body long enough for one night, she would return to her car, transform, and dress. She believed she'd found a safe way to live with her double nature. He hated knowing he'd have to shatter that illusion.

He froze, leashing his eagerness to shed his clothes, cast off his human form, and dash toward her. He couldn't risk scaring her away. He'd watched over her from a distance for years, but tonight he would reveal himself for the first time. If he rushed into the meeting too abruptly, she would flee. He watched her glance from side to side and sniff the air. Did she sense his nearness? He prayed the wind wouldn't shift and waft his scent to her.

Any minute, she would summon the courage to lope away from the shelter of the trees. Across the lot, her compact car's back door stood ajar with the interior lights off. As usual, she'd left her clothes on the floor behind the driver's seat with her wallet and the ignition key wrapped in them. Tonight Raoul had placed a sealed envelope on the front passenger seat.

The noise of an engine with a shoddy muffler cracked the quiet of the night. His gaze shifted to the dark blue sedan slowing down at the entrance to the lot. Damn. Jason!

Raoul sprinted toward the patch of woods. He couldn't risk letting the man in that car catch a glimpse of the she-wolf.

Erin, wait!” he called when she tensed her muscles to run.

She paused, quivering with uncertainty, her lips curled in a silent snarl. No doubt his speaking her name alarmed her.

He joined her under the trees and raised his hands, palms out. “Don't run from me. I don't mean you any harm. I know what you are.”

A ridge of hair stood up along her spine. His nostrils flared at her clean, wild scent, a blend of curiosity and fear. It reminded him of his oldest friend, Kevin, yet flavored with lighter, sweeter female overtones, like citrus and cinnamon. Raoul had served his friend all these years by keeping an eye on both of the children, but he'd never met the girl face to face, only the boy.

Children? This young woman had long since grown out of childhood. Her feminine aroma proved that as obviously as the curves of her human form did. Now, still in a wolf's body, she stared at him while he edged closer to her.

“Don't be afraid.” He lowered his voice almost to a whisper. Behind them, he heard Jason's car slowing to idle speed. “I'm a friend of your father.”

Now she snarled aloud. He couldn't blame her if she bristled at any mention of the man who'd sired her. She must feel Kevin had abandoned her and her mother without explanation or excuse. Not for the first time, Raoul marveled at how well she'd learned to control her condition with no guidance at all.

“Quiet. There's a man following me,” he said, pitching his voice as soft as her animal hearing could register. “You can't let him see you. We have to get farther into the woods.”

Another pace brought Raoul within arm's reach of her. He stretched out a hand. Saliva gleamed on her bared fangs. Though he longed to touch her and rub her thick fur, he decided indulging that desire wouldn't be worth the risk of her sinking those teeth into his flesh.

He lowered his hand to his side, hoping the gesture would calm her. “Let's go.” He tiptoed away from their exposed position at the edge of the parking lot, careful to avoid twigs that might snap underfoot. To his relief, she crept after him.

When he thought they'd retreated far enough, he stopped and placed a finger on his lips. The car's motor had stopped. The other man's footsteps crunched on gravel. Now Raoul dared to lay one hand on the wolf's back. Her muscles vibrated with tension under his palm, but she didn't growl or bite. He allowed himself the pleasure of stroking her ruffled fur. She edged away from him but not quite out of reach.

The footsteps circled the lot, paused, probably next to Raoul's car. With luck, the follower would assume Raoul had stopped there for the same reason Erin had, to hunt in the wooded park. Raoul held his breath and heard the wolf doing the same. His chest ached by the time the other man jogged back to his car and started it. A minute later, the vehicle accelerated and drove away.

“I couldn't let him see us together,” Raoul whispered. “It would be dangerous for you.”

She gazed up at him with a challenge in the glow of her green eyes.

“I can't explain now. I hope you'll give me a chance later. But that's not why I tracked you down tonight.”

He lifted his hand from her back and stepped away. What he had to say next would upset her enough without making things worse by invading her space. “I have bad news. Your father is dead.”

(end of excerpt)