Thursday, October 18, 2012

Getting into Your Characters

As I’ve said earlier, you should develop your plot and characters at the same time. Usually, my stories begin with “a cool idea.” Something that turns me on and makes me want to develop a plot and characters to go with the idea.

What if a man had lived for 500 years, and he needed to hide his longevity (MORE THAN A MAN)? What if a woman met the ghost of a man she’d loved and lost (CHAINED)? What if a doctor had a fake fertility clinic where he tried to increase the intelligence of children but created a race of telepaths instead (SUDDEN INSIGHT and SUDDEN ATTRACTION)?

From an idea like that, I develop a plot. And as I plot my story, I’m always thinking about the characters. I have an idea of who they are before I start writing. In HER BABY’S FATHER, for example, I knew my heroine was a woman from a middle-class background who falls in love with a man from a wealthy family. He’s murdered, and she’s left pregnant with his child. As the book opens, she’s in labor on the way to the hospital, when she’s killed in a car crash. Instead of taking her to heaven, angels send her back in time to the day she met her lover—and she has a chance to change history and save his life.

That’s the dramatic idea that sparked the plot, but to flesh out the story, I needed to know a lot about the heroine.

I had some ideas about her when I started writing the book. I wanted her to be self-sufficient and have a job that showcased her artistic talents. I wanted her to live in a small town where I could contain the action of the story. And I wanted a secret in her background that the hero’s family would use against her.

But there was so much more I needed to know. What’s her job? What are her goals and aspirations? Is she brave and determined enough to save the man she loves? How does she react when she’s in danger? How does she handle shifting reality when the things that happened before come out differently?

I came up with those details before I started writing. But, as always, I really got to know her when I was writing the first few chapters of the book.

When I write characters, I’m usually more interested in their interior traits than their physical appearance. But I've obviously got to describe them to the reader, and I will admit that all the guys in my books look like my husband if they don’t, I’m lying about it. (Well, they’re taller and slimmer.)

I can’t get very far in the process of thinking about a major character, without giving him or her a name. The names of your characters should be very conscious choices. Percy, Josephine, Ted, Norman, Dirk Pitt, Mannix, Elizabeth, Liz, Betty. They all convey a shorthand impression of the person. And don’t forget to read a name aloud if you’re considering it. Try not to select a tongue twister.

The names of the hero and heroine are very important—and also the villain. With minor characters, not so much. In fact I need to keep a list of minor characters’ names so I won’t switch them in the middle of the manuscript.

You can go either with names that are unusual or popular. Jayne Krentz is famous for giving her characters names that sound a little different—which works for her. I often use names that are popular. A good source for those is the Social Security Data Base of Baby Names:

It gives you the ten most popular names from last year, but you can reset the table to give you a hundred names, or even more. And if you write historicals, you can reset to give you popular names from previous years.

Of course, there are tons of baby-name books. One that I’ve been using for years is The Baby Boomer Book of Names, by Roger Price, et al. What I particularly like about it is the section that gives names by country of origin. When I’m looking for a foreign last name that’s easy to pronounce, I may use an ethnic male first name as a last name for a character.

For example, Garner is actually a male first name of French origin. Eldridge is an Old English male first name, as is Hale. Warner is a male first name of German origin. You can also find ethnic names on various Web sites.

After you’ve come up with a name, there are several left-brain (logical) techniques for getting to know your characters. One is the character interview, which can go far toward helping you create characters who are three-dimensional.

This one comes from Diane Chamberlain, author of many novels including The Good Father. Play the part of your character and fill in the blanks:

I love_______________________________
I hate_______________________________
I am embarrassed by __________________
I want a man who______________________
My mother____________________________
My father_____________________________
My family_____________________________
My biggest flaw is______________________
Eating is_____________________________
Sex is_______________________________
Traveling is___________________________
Money is_____________________________
My house is___________________________
My life is_____________________________
Work is_______________________________
People are____________________________
The world is___________________________
Religion is____________________________
Government is_________________________
_______________________________makes me happy
_______________________________makes me sad
_______________________________makes me frightened
_______________________________makes me proud
_______________________________makes me lonely
_______________________________embarrasses me
_______________________________frightens me
I don’t want anybody to know that____________________
I am afraid of___________________________________
I like to wear____________________________________
I hate to wear___________________________________
The worst man for me is___________________________
Since I was a child I______________________________
If I could do one thing I would_______________________
Nobody ever____________________________________
People think I___________________________________
I wish _________________________________________
I never_________________________________________
I always________________________________________
If I could change one thing__________________________
I hope_________________________________________

If you go through this list with your character, you will come up with all sorts of insights you didn’t know before.

There’s a whole lot more to discuss on the subject of character development. Next time I’ll share more techniques that can help you come up with rounded characters, including using the Myers-Briggs personality types.

What methods do you use for creating characters who are three-dimensional?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

More on Details

One point I want to pound into you is that a novel is not reality, but you must make it seem real to the reader. You do this with realistic characters and a plot that makes sense—and also with the details that you select for your story. Each detail, no matter how small is important.

My own inclination is to know as much as I can before I start to write a  manuscript, but some details will not come up until I’m in the midst.  Nevertheless, these elements must be considered carefully.

I want to use DARK POWERS, my new Decorah Security novel, as an example.  The idea for the book began with a character—Ben Walker, whom readers met in DARK MOON. During a near-death experience, Ben acquired the power to touch a dead body and get the person’s last memories. I wanted to write his story, but what was the best way to do it?

First I needed a plot where he could use his psychic talent, and I decided that if he discovered the victims of a serial killer, he would know who murdered them.

Next I needed a heroine, and I came up with Sage Arnold, a hard-working accountant whose half sister, Laurel Baker, is kidnapped.

To create complications for Ben and Sage, I wanted the local police to insist that Laurel is a runaway. Why are they turning a blind eye to reality?  What’s their motivation?  And how can they get away with their behavior?

Because this plot element had to be plausible, I thought about where I could set the story and determined that the best place would be a small town run by an “old-boy network” where most of the income comes from tourism.  I could make those requirements work in a number of locations, but I decided to focus on Maryland’s Eastern Shore because it’s out of the mainstream and because I’ve gone there many times to do research for books.

Should you use real names of places for your work?  I do think actual places  add verisimilitude, and I often use genuine details like restaurant, city, and street names; but I have a rule that if I’m going to say something really bad about a place, I give it a fictitious name.  Since the conspiracy of silence in town is a major theme in DARK POWERS, I set the story in a place I called Doncaster, although the physical features match St. Michaels, Maryland, pretty well.

The name of my fictitious town is a detail I considered carefully.  Since Oxford and Cambridge are both located near St. Michaels, I continued the British theme and found Doncaster on a map of England.

Once I’d settled on Doncaster as my setting, I looked for authentic details that would make the story more vivid. The main industry on the Eastern Shore used to be fishing and crabbing, along with farming, which is why it makes sense to have abandoned warehouses and crab processing plants that are excellent locations to hide a dead body.  And on the outskirts of  St. Michaels is a newly developed golf course community—another prime setting for a body to turn up.

In town, I used  the seafood restaurant on the waterfront in St. Michaels/Doncaster, where diners can arrive on foot, by car, or by boat.  Then there’s the police station, located in a converted Victorian house. It’s charming on the outside and all business on the inside. (And I had the nasty idea to have my hero and heroine locked in jail cells there overnight.)

And where could a local resident stash a kidnap victim and keep her captive for several months before killing her?  That would have to be in an isolated area but one that was an easy drive from downtown Doncaster—where my kidnapper/serial killer works.

My heroine, Sage Arnold, grew up in Doncaster and has a love/hate relationship with the town. We see the community and its people through her eyes and also through Ben Walker’s eyes. I’m able to introduce the setting as Sage shows Ben around, commenting on the residents as she drives by shops and houses.

Scenes set in the various locations around town allowed me to drop clues about the kidnapper and the victim, clues that only become obvious near the end of the book.

And one detail that turned out to be essential—how does Ben see the last memories of murder victims and not the murderer’s face?  I decided he had to wear a black hood that hid his features from Ben—and from the reader.

In summary, never include a detail without carefully considering what role it will play in the story.  Think of the details as enriching your book and helping to make your fictional universe real to the reader.

What do you think about when considering the setting for a story?  How have you used details to make your fiction richer?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Maryland Romance Writers at the Baltimore Book Festival this Weekend

This weekend, if you live anywhere near Baltimore, you’ve got a wonderful opportunity to hang out with members of Maryland Romance Writers—including me.

This year we have a fabulous location. Our tent is located right at the main entrance to the Festival, on Charles Street below the Washington Monument.

Starting Friday afternoon, we’ll be providing a wide variety of programming on the book industry, the craft of writing, and everything you need to know to succeed in fiction’s best-selling genre.

We kick off on Friday, September 28, at noon, with a meet and greet.  Come talk about books, receive promotional materials and browse the Ukazoo Bookstore!  Following are panel discussions throughout the book festival.

Getting the Courage to Write

Everything you ever wanted to know about how to get started in a fiction- writing career. Come prepared with questions! Authors include: Debra Anastasia, Robin Covington, Cheryl Klam, Sophie Perinot and Rebecca York.

On this panel I’m going to talk about what I call “the writing muscle.” The more you write, the easier it is to do it. (Not that it’s ever easy.) And I’m going to tell you everyone gets rejected—even if you’ve sold a hundred books.

On Writing Young Adult Romance Series

Authors talk about the challenges of writing engaging series and offer readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Participating authors are Jennifer L. Armentrout, Claudia Gabel, Lea Nolan and Jeri Smith-Ready.

3 pm
Craft & Character Lessons

Authors offer advice, guidance and tricks of the trade in developing your writing craft and characterization. Authors include Miranda Neville, Jeri Smith-Ready, Rebecca York and Laura Kaye.

Some of the topics we’ll cover include:

  • Do you come up w/ character first or plot first? Why?
  • Do you plot out your story or do you “wing it”?
  • Do you develop your characters at the same time you develop your plot?
  • How do you come up with well-rounded characters?
  • What are important traits for a romance hero? Heroine?
  • Do you have favorite characters you’ve created?

4 pm
Historical Accuracy in Historical Fiction

Authors talk about their take on research and issues of accuracy in historical romantic fiction and read from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles.  Authors include Eliza Knight, Janet Mullany, Miranda Neville, Kate Poole, Kate Quinn and Amy Villalba.

Trends and Readings In Romantic Suspense

Authors discuss what romantic suspense is, what trends define the genre, and share readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Natalie Damschroder, Joya Fields, Caridad Pineiro and Rebecca York.

I’ll talk about exactly what my new Sourcebooks editor asked me for in my new Sourcebooks romantic suspense series.

Blood and Chocolate

Indulge your chocolate cravings with dark and delicious chocolate samples from Maryland Romance Writers, while authors talk about why vampire fiction remains hot and share readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Debra Anastasia, Laura Kaye, Janet Mullany, Caridad Pineiro, and Amy Villalba.

Debating the Erotic and Readings

Authors talk about the differences between erotic romance, erotic fiction, and erotica and offer readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Laura Kaye, Janet Mullany, Caridad Pineiro and Kate Poole.

Saturday, September 29 

Trends and Readings in Young Adult Romance

Authors talk about what’s hot in young adult romantic fiction and share readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Jennifer L. Armentrout, Em Garner, Cheryl Klam, Alethea Kontis, Lea Nolan and Leanna Renee Hieber.

Moderated by Elissa Petruzzi, YA editor, RT Book Reviews Magazine

What is Women’s Fiction?

Authors talk about what defines women’s fiction, how it differs from romance, and offer readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Stephanie Dray, Lisa Verge Higgins, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn and Hope Tarr.

Fantasy In Romance/Romance In Fantasy

Science fiction romance. Time travel. Ghost stories. And more! Authors discuss weaving fantasy and romantic elements together and offer readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Debra Anastasia, Catherine Asaro, Eliza Knight, Loni Lynne, Leanna Renee Hieber and Hope Tarr.

No Holds Barred with Agents and Editors

Come prepared with questions you’ve always wanted agents and editors to answer. And, for the especially daring, come with five copies of the first page of your manuscript, and the panelists offer feedback on what works and what to work on! (One-page instructions: typed, no name, place title/genre at top, double-spaced, one-inch margins and 12-point font.)  Agents and editors include Elaine English, literary agent and attorney, Elaine English Literary; Claudia Gabel, senior editor, Katherine Tegen Books (imprint of Harper Collins).

Publishing Contracts: What Authors Need to Know

An attorney and literary agent, Elaine P. English breaks down publishing contracts and offers advice on clauses to avoid, negotiations and other legal considerations for authors.

4:50 pm
Trends and Readings In Historical Fiction

Historical fiction has been making a big comeback, exploring new time periods and the lives of lesser-known historical figures. What’s behind the trend, and where is the genre going? Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Kate Dolan, Christie Kelley, Sophie Perinot, Hope Tarr and Diane Wylie.

Sex and Historical Fiction Novelists

Authors talk about the role of romance and sex in writing and telling a story of historical fiction and offer readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Stephanie Dray, Sophie Perinot and Kate Quinn.

Fifty Shades of Hot!: Erotic Taboos in Fiction and Readings

Authors offer readings from their latest works and talk about writing the forbidden, including identifying and pushing their erotic boundaries, where the line crosses into pornography, and how to enjoy the risks and the payoffs of writing and reading erotic taboos. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Stephanie Draven, Megan Hart, Eliza Knight, Caridad Pineiro and Pam Rosenthal/Molly Weatherfield.

Sunday, September 30 

Many Paths To Publication: ePublishing and Self-Publishing

Authors talk about the many options writers have to get their writing before readers and will discuss the pros and cons, the journey to publication, and the risks and rewards of epublishing and self-publishing. Authors include Christi Barth, Kate Dolan, Megan Hart, Eliza Knight, Amy Villalba and Rebecca York.

I’ll talk about how I’ve added indie publishing and e-publishing to my traditional career.

The Writing Mother

Authors discuss the challenges of and tips for how to balance a career in fiction writing with the demands of family, motherhood and other jobs. Authors include Robin Covington, Patricia Eimer, Jamie Michele, Lisa Verge Higgins and Laura Welling.

Writing Funny And Romantic

Authors talk about incorporating humor and comedic elements into romantic fiction and share readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Debra Anastasia, Jennifer L. Armentrout, Christi Barth, Stephanie Draven, and Patricia Eimer.

Readings In Contemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense

Authors discuss the challenges and benefits of writing stories set in the contemporary world, talk about researching contemporary stories, and share readings from their latest works. Authors include Ann Arbaugh, Christi Barth, Robin Covington, Joya Fields, Lillie Finn, and Jamie Michele.

The Healthy Writer

Authors share the challenges of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and offer tips on how to how to stay healthy while pursuing a career in fiction writing. Authors include Sharon Buchbinder, Kate Dolan, Eliza Knight and Rebecca York.

I’ll discuss how I fit exercise into my writing life (including my new treadmill desk) plus how I keep my diet healthy.

Making Old Stories New

Authors present on how to create engaging fiction based on fairy tales, folklore, mythology, and history, and how to make those old stories new, fresh, and exciting. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Kate Dolan, Natalie Damschroder, Stephanie Draven, Laura Kaye, Alethea Kontis and Catherine Asaro.

Creature Feature! Trends and Readings in Paranormal Romance

Authors argue the case for their favorite paranormal creature, talk about trends in paranormal romance, and offer readings from their latest works. Giveaways/Raffles. Authors include Sharon Buchbinder, Stephanie Draven, Laura Kaye, Loni Lynne and Laura Welling.

Come meet some of your favorite authors, and get some great writing advice.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Details Details

As you plan your book, every detail of the story should be your conscious decision.  You leave nothing to chance in shaping your book.  This applies to the characters and the plot—along with all the other elements, you also have to consider setting, dialogue, conflict, the resolution, the pacing.  Each detail determines the shape of the story.  As I said in a previous post, this is not reality.  It must seem real to the reader, but you are the one who picks each detail.

You develop your plot through a series of scenes which are self-contained yet linked to the rest of the action of the book.

Each scene has a beginning, middle and end.  And each scene should have more than one purpose—to reveal character, advance the plot (what's happening in the story), give the setting, or show the character's problem and how the character deals with the problem.

Every incident of the plot should be there for a reason.  Nothing should happen at random.  Every element in a story should have significance in terms of the rest of the book.  It should contribute to the effect you want to create and build toward a crisis point or the climax of the story.

You may have heard that if a writer has a character discover a gun in a drawer, that somebody better fire that gun by the end of the story.  And sometimes this situation is literally true.  Night over Water, by Ken Follett, a book I’d call romantic suspense, is set on a Pan Am Clipper flying from England to North America.  During the course of the story, a boy discovers a gun in the pilot’s drawer—a boy who knows how to shoot.

In Harlan Coben’s Hold Tight, two girls are having a sleepover at one of their houses.  One girl shows the other the loaded gun in her father’s drawer, and we wonder if the scene is going to lead to tragedy.  But we know for sure that Coben, like Follett, is going to use that gun.

In both these books, the characters bring about a resolution to the problems generated by the plot.  And this is a must in your own stories.  In today’s fiction, no author should rely on the deus ex machina.  The phrase means “a god from the machine,” and it was used frequently in Greek tragedy.  At the end of the play, a god would come in and make everything right.  In your book, if the heroine is going to be saved at the end of the story by money she inherits from her Uncle Herbert, then we need to know about this uncle.  We need to know he’s sick or off on a dangerous expedition where he might get killed.

One problem with plotting is that you know what’s going to happen.  You know Colonel Mustard bashed the victim over the head in the hall with a candlestick, and you’re bursting to tell the reader about it.  If you spill the information too quickly, you may have turned your eighty-thousand-word book into a short story.  You have to hide the information and string the reader along.

By the same token you must make sure that the climax of the story is not a surprise.  You must lay the groundwork for the way you end the book.  In Lassiter’s Law, my action climax is precipitated by the heroine’s surrendering herself to the villain.  On the face of it, that’s a pretty foolish thing to do, and I spent a lot of time during the book preparing the reader for her actions by showing how much she needed to prove herself.  She was in jail for several years.  Her self-esteem is low.  She’s willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good because she thinks she’s not worthy of a happy life.

One romance plot trope I hate is when either the hero or the heroine has a deeply held conviction that keeps the couple from working out their problems.  Then at the end of the book, the hero or heroine completely reverses himself or herself—for no good reason.

I had this problem with Shattered Magic.  It’s been drummed into the hero, Prince Grantland, all his life that witchcraft is evil.  Now he’s making an alliance with a witch.  How can he change his mind?

I hope I’ve made it clear that he’s doing it because it will benefit his kingdom.  He’s doing something he hates but says that sometimes a ruler has to make difficult decisions.

I’ll talk more about plotting next time.  Do you try to make sure you’ve got more than one reason for every scene you write?  Do you consciously think about how each scene you write is moving you closer toward the climax of the book?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Theme of a Romance Novel

Back in high school, you probably hated it when your English teacher asked, “What’s the theme of this novel?”

Theme is the least understood aspect of fiction, perhaps because it’s never explicitly stated in the book. You have to read the story and tease out the theme. It’s what the writer wants you to take away when you’re finished.  Some people call it the “moral of the story,” but I see from Wikipedia that this is an “old-fashioned concept.”

So what’s the theme of a romance novel?  The healing power of love.

Your characters have been wounded in some way before the story begins—perhaps by each other.  Often in my books, it’s the hero who has problems so serious that he could never overcome them on his own. He’s been deeply hurt in the past, which makes him unwilling to risk his emotions in a relationship. But my heroine may also have a background that makes her afraid to trust the hero or allow herself to believe in the relationship they are building.

I spoke about internal conflict last time and how you use it in your story to make it seem impossible for the hero and heroine to work out their differences. What changes everything for them is the deep love they come to feel for each other.  In many romances, this starts off as sexual attraction, even lust, but it must morph into strong, positive emotion.  Love finally gives them the courage to drop their barriers and admit their true longings. Or to put it another way, love makes them brave enough to reach for what they haven’t been able to admit they want.

Let’s look at some examples of what this means.

In my Harlequin Intrigue, Guarding Grace, the heroine has discovered she’s a clone, adopted by a family who have no idea that she was designed to be used for spare parts if the woman she was cloned from needs her. Imagine how much this makes her feel less than human.  Is she brave enough to trust the hero with her secret?  And brave enough to believe that a man could love her, even after he finds out what she is.

In the award-winning Meant to Be Married, by Ruth Wind, the hero and heroine ran away to get married when they were eighteen and expecting a baby.  Then her father forced her to leave him and give up their baby for adoption.  Each thinks the other is at fault.  Now, years later, they’re back in the same town and forced to deal with the relationship on a more mature level—and finally admit what they’ve been denying for years, that they love each other.

In my Decorah Security novella, Chained, the heroine, Isabella Flores, is being pursued by killers.  When she hides out at her father’s ranch, she encounters what she thinks is the ghost of the man she loved—Matthew Houseman.  Matt vows to protect Isabella, even though he thinks he’s dead.  At the same time, he knows there’s no way he could have a lasting relationship with her. He must leave her, for her own sake—unless her love for him can convince him that he’s wrong.

In one of my Intrigues, Never too Late, the hero is a documentary filmmaker in the heroine’s dictator-run country, and the heroine was forced to betray him.  As a result, he was imprisoned, tortured and deported.  He doesn’t know that she did the only thing she could to save his life.  Six years later, they’re being chased by her country’s secret police and forced to deal with hard truths from the past.

In Her Baby’s Father, my Intrigue out this month, the heroine is killed in a car crash. Instead of escorting her to heaven, angels send her back in time, giving her a chance to save the life of the man who fathered her child. But he was seriously wounded in Afghanistan, and he’s learned to be suspicious and mistrustful, especially of a woman who seems to be weighing her every word. And how can he credit her crazy claims that she knows someone is going to kill him because it all happened before? The only way he’s going to save his life is if he realizes that she’s acting out of love and desperation to change his destiny.

The novels I’ve described above illustrate the basic theme of all romances.  They are about people conquering their fear of intimacy in order to achieve the warm, close relationship that all humans crave.  Only if they dare to embrace love can they overcome the internal problems that plague them.  This surrender to love is what allows them to live happily ever after. They achieve what has become their mutual goal:  to join their lives in a committed relationship.

When someone tells you romance novels are fluff or porn—or whatever else they say when they are uncomfortable with books that focus on relationships—tell them about the theme of a romance novel.  Ask them if books full of hope and optimism are worth reading.

Of course, there’s also a variation in the romance novel where the conflict is lighter and diffused with humor, the province of such writers as Jennifer Crusie and Vicki Lewis Thompson.  I do like reading humorous romances.  And I try to include some humor in my books.  But the overall story will not be light because I gravitate toward heavy-duty topics where the characters must trust each other enough to overcome their serious internal problems.

What kind of romance do you write, and why?  And what kind do you read?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Conflict–the Essence of Good Fiction

How do you keep a relationship story from getting boring?  They meet each other. They’re attracted.  They fall in love.  They live happily ever after.  What keeps the reader turning the pages?

As in any good genre fiction, the plot must serve up problems the hero and heroine must overcome.  There must be enough happening in the book to keep the reader interested.

Here’s a quote from an article John Irving wrote long ago in Publishers’ Weekly:
"Plot' isn't what compels many novelists to write or some readers to read.  But if you choose to write a novel without a plot, I would hope three things for you: that your prose is gorgeous, that your insights into the human condition are inspirational, and that your book is short.  I am directing my remarks, of course, to those writers (and readers) of long novels.
I’ve taken his advice to heart, and I make sure there’s enough conflict in my story to keep the plot moving along.

Conflicts are divided into internal and external problems.

If you’re writing romantic suspense–you’ve got a whole spectrum of psychotic killers, evil overlords and dangerous wiseguys to threaten your hero and heroine.

But conflict is also essential to a romance without these danger elements.
You might for example write about a heroine who’s an environmentalist, and he’s a slash-and-burn developer.

Or she has a small business that’s in competition with his big hairy conglomerate.

Or what if she’s a homicide cop, and he’s a famous mystery writer who wants to tag along on her cases because he’s writing a female detective?
Those are external problems, but the strongest romances give the reader the emotional impact of gut-wrenching internal conflicts that make it look like these people can’t possibly end up happy together.

Suppose the heroine’s husband was accidentally killed by a cop, and the hero’s the man who shot him?  He knows who she is, but he can’t stop himself from falling in love with her.  But he’s terrified of what will happen when  she finds out who he is.  And, of course, she will.  How can they possibly overcome that?

Or he’s a detective who’s been hired to find a serial killer, and he thinks it’s her brother.  Or he thinks it’s her.  He gets to know her because he’s investigating the murder, yet he can’t help falling for her.

Suppose you have a hero whose parents were each married and divorced several times, and he was shuffled around from home to home.  Now he’s fallen in love with a woman, but he thinks that his background has made it impossible for him to be a reliable marriage partner.

Those are some conflicts that make it seem impossible for the hero and heroine to make a commitment to each other.  But during the course of the story, they will have reasons to reevaluate and change.

As you plan your story, you must give your characters life.  The readers must like them and identify with them.  Yet they must have flaws that make them three-dimensional and human.

One of the best examples of a famous flawed character is Scarlett O’Hara.  I don’t even have to tell you the name of the book she’s in.  You know.  She's so well drawn that we understand her goals and desires--even if we don't like the ways she tries to achieve them, including marrying her sister’s fiancĂ©.  We may hate her reasons for marrying, but we understand her need to save her family home.

Then there’s the hero of my novella, Chained, who thinks he’s dead, which makes it difficult for him to imagine an ongoing relationship with the heroine. <g>

In a romance novel, the hero and heroine’s internal problems will make them afraid to reach out for love.  And the conflict can’t be easily solved.  It must be strong enough to carry through to the end of the novel.
In Mary Kirk’s Embers, the heroine’s been sexually abused by her brother, which makes her afraid to have a physical relationship with anyone–even the man she loves.

In Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, the hero was thrown into a savage boarding school environment, where he was bullied and taunted.  Now rich and powerful, he’s vowed never again to let anyone reach him emotionally.  Then he falls in love–only he’s too damaged to admit it.  I said in one of my previous posts, “Who are these people, and why will they drive each other crazy?” That’s a question you must consider if you want to keep the reader reading.

How do you think about character conflicts in your own work?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Plot Driven or Character Driven?

In discussing plot and character, we often make a distinction between books that are plot driven and books that are character driven.

Most mysteries, suspense novels, and thrillers are essentially plot driven. In a plot-driven story, incidents happen, and the characters are forced to react to them.  The hero is accused of murder.  The heroine’s baby is kidnapped.  The heroine wakes up to find the villain has set her house on fire.

In a character-driven book, the story is shaped by the character traits and the inner feelings of the hero and heroine.  Most literary fiction and some romances are character driven.

However, to some extent these two elements are always intertwined.  Because you can’t work on a plot without having the right characters who fit into it and without considering how the incidents affect these people.

The way I think about it is—the most important thing about each element of the plot is—how will the characters I’ve created react to this situation?

What will be their feelings, their emotions?  Seeing the hero dangling off a cliff adds drama and tension to a story.  But the tension is increased when we experience the scene through the eyes of the heroine—who is desperate to save him.

Or turn the tables.  How does he feel if he comes back to their hideout and finds she’s been kidnapped?  What if he comes home and finds she’s packed her things and left?

I’m going to take what seems like an extreme example of a plot-driven scene and look at how adding character-driven elements enhances it.

In Eternal Moon, one of my werewolf books, a serial killer is using implements to torture and murder women real estate agents.  After Jacob and Renata have made love, she gets a tip that he may be the killer.  When she thinks he’s away, she searches his house and discovers planted evidence that makes him look like the murderer (small plastic bags with locks of hair from the women who have been killed).

Jacob comes in and sees she’s found the evidence.  Although he protests that he’s being set up, she’s holds him at gunpoint while she calls the cops.  He changes into a werewolf and shows her why he doesn’t need implements to tear anyone to shreds.

The transformation takes place while the police are on the way to Jacob’s house to arrest him.  The action is tense and dramatic, but it’s only part of the scene.  The emotions of the characters are equally important.  Renata’s horror that the man she made love with is a serial killer. Jacob’s anger and frustration that she thinks he’s guilty. His desperation to prove it can’t be him.  Her terror at discovering his true nature.

This scene is obviously from a paranormal romantic suspense novel.  The external plot is the suspense plot, which has to move at a good pace to keep the reader turning the pages.  But, as in any romance, the internal plot is always equally–or more–important.

Once I get my basic idea, I focus on the characters and the conflict between them as I design the incidents of the story.

In any scene you write, you don’t have to get it down all at once. I often start by focusing on blocking out the action. In the scene I described above, the action is her breaking into his house and discovering the evidence hidden in his closet, his coming home and finding her, her holding him at gunpoint while she calls the authorities, and his changing to wolf form.  I may initially get some of the characters’ emotions, but I always have to go back and add more to tie the action to what the characters are feeling.

The scene I described above started from Renata’s point of view as she sneaks through his house, first feeling guilty because she’s spying on Jacob.  Then her emotions turn to horror as she thinks he’s the killer.  When Jacob comes home, it switches to his viewpoint so I can get his feeling of shock–then desperation–as he tries to convince her of his innocence.
I don’t hop back and forth from one viewpoint to another in a scene. I stick with one character and perhaps switch POV once, if I think it’s necessary.  And I do try to use the POV of the character who has the most to lose.

But you can show a character’s emotions by using cues that the viewpoint character observes. It can be body language (her shoulders tensed), facial expressions (her mouth softened), tone of voice (her voice went high and reedy),  manner of speaking (she clipped out her words), or actions (she slammed the book onto the table).  Take it as a challenge to show the reader a character’s feelings without being in his or her head.

One more point I should make—the emotions of the characters are always crucial in a love scene. Otherwise it’s just a description of putting tab A into slot B.  Women writers are better at this than most men writers. (Ken Follett is a notable exception.)  One of my favorite examples of an inadequate love scene written by a man consists of these two sentences: “He climbed into bed.  He reached for her breast.”

If you’re oriented toward plot, don’t leave out the emotions of the characters as you tell your story.  And if the characters are what interest you most, make sure enough is happening in the story to keep the reader turning the pages.

Do you think of yourself as a plot-driven or a character-driven writer, and why?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

More on Plot and Character

You have a better chance of selling to an editor if you fit your book into a particular subgenre.  Regency historical. Vampire. Small-town contemporary. Romantic suspense. Harlequin Presents.

Once you know your target market, your plot and characters must both work together in your story.

To be very basic, if you’re writing in any kind of romance, it’s unlikely you will have a hero who is a serial killer.  But in the suspense genre, Dexter has proved that you can do it in a suspense novel.

Sometimes if you do have a character with questionable traits or problems, you may be able to get away with using him if you don’t introduce his real problems immediately.  In one of my Harlequin Intrigues, What Child is This, I had a hero who had been adopted.  I wanted him to have a compelling reason to be searching for his birth mother and decided that if he had leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant, that would be a very strong reason for his search.  My editor hated the idea of giving my hero a serious disease.  I told her he was in remission and argued to keep the crucial plot element in the book.

Finally she relented, if I agreed to make sure the reader knew and liked the hero before she found out he had a fatal disease.  Oddly enough, it was okay for the heroine to think the hero was a drug addict before she found out what was really wrong with him.

I learned a lot about plot and character through my love of reading.  In my teens, one of my favorite authors was Sinclair Lewis.  He was brilliant at character sketches.  In just a sentence or two, he could get inside the personality of a small-town mayor or the head of a major corporation.  But he was much less adept with plot.  His stories moved slowly, often with little action, and eventually I stopped reading him.

Contrast that with the action-packed movies being produced today.  They serve up car chases, explosions and world-crushing meteors, bombarding the screen one after the other.  But mostly they don’t interest me unless they focus on compelling characters as well, and the action makes logical sense.

If you want to study some writers who do both plot and character with equal brilliance, try Stephen King or Dean Koontz, particularly his earlier works like Whispers, Lightning, and Watchers.  I know English teachers and devotees of literary fiction tend to sneer at them for being “popular.”  But there’s a reason for their popularity.  They deliver a great reading experience over and over.

Often a plot idea first sparks my interest in a story.  But I develop the characters as I work out the plot.

What if a man is murdered and his body disappears? Then we find out that his whole life has been a lie?  That’s the premise of my Harlequin Intrigue, From the Shadows. He’s not the hero of the story.  The hero is the detective trying to find out who murdered him.

Or what if you have a situation like the one Elizabeth Ashtree  conjured up in The Colonel and the Kid, where the hero’s son needs a heart operation to save his life.  But their home is in Russia where the proper medical attention is unavailable, and the only way the father can save his child’s life is to sneak him into the U.S.  What are his the gut-wrenching emotions?
And what if the heroine is a U.S. military officer, who will be breaking the law if she finds out his plan and doesn’t report it?

In my own work, I try to create the perfect hero and heroine for each story.  I ask myself, why are these people in this plot?  Or–who are these people, and why will they drive each other crazy?

In my Intrigue, Solid as Steele, the heroine is a psychic who sees the death of a murder victim in a dream.  Frightened, she calls her friends at the Light Street Detective Agency.  But the hard-bitten detective hero doesn’t believe in psychics and doesn’t think she can know anything about the murder unless she’s involved.  Still, they’re forced to work together to solve the crime, and as she uses her special talents to give him more and more information, he’s forced to change his mind about psychic abilities.  Complicating their relationship is their guilt that they were attracted to each other before her husband was killed.

Even as I work out my plot and plan the characters, the people don’t come fully alive for me until I start writing the book.  It takes me about three chapters to get into their heads deeply enough to know how they will react in each situation they face.  And as I write, I may go back and fill in more about their character so the reader can understand them better.  Still, I try never to overload any one part of the story with too much background. “Character development” should never be the only reason for a scene.  Each scene between your characters has to move the plot forward toward an ending that will satisfy the reader.

What writers do you admire? Or which authors made you want to become an author?

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Integrating Plot and Character

Never separate plot and character.  As you decide on the book you want to write, you must consider them at the same time because you will want certain characters for the plot you are creating.  Or a certain plot for the characters you have in mind.

Whichever you think of first, you must develop them together because there’s a synergy between these two elements of your story. You might think of a great story about a man who’s living alone in a mountain cabin and is visited by space aliens, but what’s he doing in that cabin?  Why is he alone?  How is he going to deal with little green men knocking on his door?  And the larger question–is the reader going to believe his reactions?

Let’s consider the beginning of your thinking process and the steps you go through when you start a book.

Even if you’re a completely right-brained writer, and you work very intuitively, the steps are in there somewhere.  You just might not consciously think about what they are.

Because I’m a very left-brained, or logical, writer, I can describe my primary considerations before I wrote my first werewolf book, KILLING MOON.

For years I had an idea in mind.  What if a werewolf detective used his wolf senses to solve crimes?  The main character Ross Marshall, came to me first. A macho werewolf filled with angst about his relationship to humanity.

His specialties are tracking missing persons and sneaking into environments where a man couldn’t easily go.  But by the same token, he’s got the disadvantage of sometimes being a wolf at the wrong place and the right time.

Once I knew enough about Ross, I began plotting his story. In KILLING MOON, Ross is tracking a serial killer.  He also wants to investigate his genetic heritage, which brings him into contact with the heroine, a physician who works at a genetics lab.  She’s got her own problems because the lab is being sabotaged by someone.  Ross and Megan are drawn to each other, but she knows there’s something strange about him, and he’s fighting his attraction tooth and claw because he doesn’t want to drag a woman into the kind of miserable life his mom led with his low-life werewolf dad.

Five years ago, Ross tore out the throat of a serial killer the police wouldn’t go after, and he’s sworn never to kill again.  Then the killer he’s currently stalking captures Megan, and he’s forced to break his vow to save her life.

In my planning process, I gave my hero internal and external problems to solve. And I also designed a heroine with traits that pulled him toward her and at the same time pushed him away.

Once you have a basic idea, you need to decide on your focus.  What kind of book are you writing? For example, I considered making KILLING MOON the first book in a detective series. Then I realized I’d be better off going with romantic suspense, since I wanted the romance to play a big part in the story. This meant I couldn’t keep the focus on Ross Marshall in subsequent books. But he could play a strong secondary role in other books about his brothers and cousins. And his cousin, Cole Marshall, is the hero of my recent indie release, DARK MOON.

Which do you usually think of first–plot or character? And why?

This is an enormous subject. More next time.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How Do You Get There from Here?

Writing a novel takes a lot of skills.  You have to create characters the reader cares about and a fantastic plot full of conflict.  Then you must get a lot of other elements right such as pacing, setting, and dialogue.  You probably have to research some aspects of your story.  And you’ve got to make sure your grammar and punctuation don’t yank the reader out of the world you’re creating.

But there isn’t one right way to do it.  As I’ve studied the craft of writing and talked to other writers about their methods, I’ve been struck by how different the process can be for each of us.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that the differences often have to do with left brain/right brain issues.

The left side of your brain is the logical side.  (A good way to remember this is that they both begin with the letter “L.”)  The right side is the more intuitive side.

All of us do use both sides of our brains.  But how we approach the writing process has to do with which side is dominant.  For me, it’s the logical, left brain side, which means that I want to outline my books before I write them.  I want a clear roadmap of where I’m going.

Writers who plunge in and start writing are more right brained.  But even when they haven’t worked out the whole plot before they begin, at some point they must figure out the incidents of the story in order to complete the project.

Each of your own books should start with something that fascinates you.  Perhaps it’s a character whose story you are burning to tell.  Or maybe it’s a brilliant plot twist.  Or perhaps it’s an issue ripped from the headlines–like  a man plotting mass murder in a movie theater or the governor of a state willing to do anything for money.

For me, a book usually begins with what I think of as a “cool idea.”  It can be a character, a plot point or a combination of the two.

Take one of my Decorah Security books, Dark Moon.  What if a rich man’s daughter is kidnapped and taken to a slave ship?  And what if the only person who can find her is a werewolf?

For my Harlequin Intrigue, More than a Man, I was thinking about a man who had lived for more than 500 years.  What would his life be like?  What problems would he encounter that would be totally unique?  Would he be afraid to love because he knew that he’d always lose his partner?

In Her Baby’s Father, another Harlequin Intrigue coming out this month, I started with the idea of a woman whose lover was murdered, leaving her pregnant.  As the book begins, she’s in labor and driving herself to the hospital in a snowstorm.  When her car crashes, she knows she’s going to die.  But angels send her back in time to the day she met the man she loved, and she’s given a second chance to keep him from being murdered.  Can she convince him he’s in danger without making him think she’s crazy because of her odd behavior?

It’s important to remember that the story you are writing is not reality.  It’s a world you create.  But you must make it look, sound, feel, taste and smell real to the reader.  You do that by paying attention to every detail from characters and plot to setting and dialogue.  Yet some details are more important than others.  I’m sure you’ve had the experience of picking up a book and starting to read–then giving up after a few pages or a few chapters.  Why?  Probably because you didn’t like the plot or you couldn’t connect with the characters.

Choosing a subject for your book should be the most right brain part of your whole process.  You must love the idea of your story.  It must turn you on.  It must be an idea that you are dying to write.  If it isn’t, you’re not going to do a good job.  In other words, there’s no use picking an idea because it’s “In.”  You see cowboy books are in, so you decide to write one.  Only you don’t know a darn thing about ranches, and you hate horses.  Trying to write a ranch book would be like jumping into a pit of alligators.  Instead, think about the topics that work for you.

Ironically, the idea doesn’t have to be your own.  A few years ago I was working on a proposal for a multi-book contract, and the editor had rejected my third synopsis.  We had to come up with an alternative, and I asked her if she had any ideas.

She said, “I’ve been thinking.  She’s a virgin, and she’s pregnant.”

I said, “I love it.  How did it happen?”

She said, “Artificial insemination.”

That was the beginning of Amanda’s Child, one of my own favorite Harlequin Intrigues.  From that idea, I built a whole story.

When you think of a story you want to write, do you come up with the plot first or the characters or a cool idea?  And do you plunge in or work on an outline before you start to write?

One person who comments can win a CD copy of my Carina Press novella, Dark Magic.  But please, if you want to be eligible for a book, include an e-mail address or your Twitter handle so I can contact you easily.  If you’d prefer not to make your e-mail address public, send it to with Subject: “How Do You Get There from Here?” Blog.

                                                         Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick

   Book Signing at the 2012 RWA Conference

Monday, July 30, 2012

Know Your Market

Last week at RWA I had the pleasure of talking to lots of people about the kind of romance they write. One was indie author Debra Holland whose Montana Sky series has sold more than 100,000 copies, with her Wild Montana Sky hitting the USA Today list, a fantastic achievement for a self-published author.  I asked her how she sold so many copies of her indie books, and she told me she identified a market that wasn’t being served—sweet westerns—and wrote for that market.

Debra’s a good example of thinking very specifically about what kind of book you want to write. And it always surprises me when an author doesn’t pause to take this step before plunging into the writing process. In my own field of romantic suspense, I’ve heard people wondering about whether the book they are writing is category or single title.  That question makes me shake my head.  If you’ve studied the field, you’ll know where your book fits in.

I write both single-title romantic suspense and also category, specifically for Harlequin Intrigue.  Let’s compare and contrast them.

With my Intrigues, the book will be about 67,000 words long.  There will be no gore and minimal violence on camera.  Most of the scenes will be from the point of view of the hero or heroine—although I might use an important secondary character—perhaps the villain.  Or a kidnapped child.

If possible, the threat will be personal to both the hero and heroine.  There must be a mystery element, but the focus will be on the developing relationship between the hero and heroine as they avoid the danger closing in on them.

Both the hero and heroine must be likable or have very good reasons why their actions are questionable. The hero and heroine will meet as close to the beginning of the book as possible, ideally in the first chapter.

The first scene will probably be with either the hero or heroine or both. They should be together as much as possible throughout the book. At the same time, their relationship will be in doubt until the end, and they will only work out their differences after the story’s action climax.
There will be little or no cursing in the dialogue, and any that’s spoken will be “mild.”  One technique I use is to say, “He cursed under his breath,” without telling you exactly what he said.  Love scenes also have limits on the words the author can use. They can range from minimal to sensual, but there will be no anatomy lessons.

The single-title romantic suspense novel is longer—probably 80 to 100,000 words, and the writer has a lot more freedom in her plot and character development.  The relationship between the hero and heroine will still be an important part of the story, but the book will be more complex with more points of view and a more complicated structure.

You can wait longer to have the hero and heroine get together in a single- title romantic suspense.  And the story might start from the point of view of a secondary character, as I did in Dark Moon, which begins with a woman being kidnapped. The hero and heroine work for a security agency hired to rescue her from a slave ship where she’s being held.

In single-title romantic suspense, there will almost always be scenes from the point of view of the villain. He must be a well-rounded character, not just “evil,” and his motivation must make sense. In my own single titles, I will try to give the reader something to admire about him. Other secondary characters may also have viewpoints.

Single-title romantic suspense tends to have more realism than category, with more research on, for example, details of police procedures or maybe hostage negotiations.  I’m writing a romantic suspense for Sourcebooks now where the heroine gets kidnapped near the end of the book, and the hero decides the only way he can get into the bad guy’s militia camp is in a glider plane. I actually rode in a glider plane similar to the one in the story. Then I did more research on the Web for details of how to pilot the plane.

In single title, the characters have the freedom to curse if they are angry or under pressure. In the love scenes, you can use words like “penis” and “clit” that would never get past the editor in category romantic suspense.

There are significant differences between a single-title and a category romantic suspense novel, yet they will both still blend romance, mystery and suspense to create a story where a man and a woman are falling in love against a background of high-stakes danger, and the relationship is not resolved until the end of the book.

I’ve focused on romantic suspense here because I know it best. But before you start any type of novel, think about exactly what kind of book you are writing.  Long or short?  Sweet or sexy?  If you’re aiming for a particular publisher or line, read their books to see what the editors are looking for.  Or consider indie publishing, where you can do it the way you want—as long as you write a book that readers will love.

What kinds of books do you want to write?  Or which do you love to read? One commenter will receive an autographed copy of one of my Harlequin Intrigues. But please, if you want to be eligible for a book, include an e-mail address or your Twitter handle so I can contact you easily. If you’d prefer not to make your e-mail address public, send it to with Subject: “Know Your Market” Blog.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick

Sunday, July 22, 2012

It’s Not Shake and Bake

Writing romance or any genre fiction isn’t like putting chicken parts into a paper bag and shaking to coat them with a seasoning packet you grabbed off the grocery shelf. You’ve got to carefully consider the type of mixture you’re using–including which spices and flavor ingredients will work best for you.

Although a lot of people who view the genre from the outside think “romances are all the same,” we know better. There are many different sub-genres, each with a devoted following. The one you choose to write in should reflect your own reading tastes.

Do you gravitate toward short contemporary romances, where the man-woman story is central? Do you like longer reads with a lot of subplots and secondary characters woven into the hero and heroine’s story?

 Do you want a sexy romance? A frankly erotic romance? Or a sweet romance with only a kiss at the end of the book? There are books for every taste.

Writing a romance is usually a balance of following your heart and figuring out how your novel will fit into the market. In today’s publishing world, there’s also the option of writing to please yourself and going indie.

 But there’s one unbreakable rule. In a romance, whatever other elements are included, the relationship is always the main focus of the story and is integrated into the incidents of the plot. Suppose the story starts with an emotionally devastated heroine who finds she’s pregnant by her boyfriend who was recently killed in Afghanistan? She may have financial problems. She may be at odds with her parents or her boss, but the plot must quickly introduce a new man into her life or focus on a man she already knows in a non-romantic context. They are drawn to each other, but it must seem impossible for them to work out their relationship; and the internal conflicts between them will be the focus of the story.

Whatever your target, read tons of books in the subgenre you like best. If you want to write for Harlequin Desire, READ scores of them, and think about what makes them work. What kinds of heroes are featured in Desires? What kinds of heroines? What are typical plots? Typical conflicts? Analyze the books, then come up with your unique take on the line.

To illustrate that romances are not “all the same,” here’s a very detailed analysis of how straight romance and romantic suspense differ.

      THE PLOT:
The plot focuses on two people meeting, falling in love, working out their internal and external conflicts, and making a commitment to each other by the end of the book.

The plot focuses on two people meeting, falling in love, and working out their conflicts against a backdrop of danger and suspense. External forces threaten to destroy these people; but by the end of the book, they triumph over the danger and make a commitment to each other.

Sexual tension and internal conflicts drive the romance. These two people are falling in love and desperate to explore the physical aspects of their relationship, yet fundamental differences keep them from making a commitment to each other. Even after they finally make love, the conflicts between them must keep their future together in doubt until the end of the story.

In addition to the sexual tension and internal conflicts, “danger tension” drives the story. These people are pursued relentlessly by sinister forces determined to destroy them. The tension of fighting to stay alive increases the level of their sexual awareness.

The writer must make the reader feel the emotions of the h/h as they fall in love by using her skill at evocative language and describing the physical manifestations of love and sexual desire. (His touch set her on fire. Joy awakened inside her like a flower bud unfurling.)

The writer must make the reader feel the fear and terror of the h/h with evocative language and description that shows us their physical reactions to fear and danger. (In the darkness, she felt as if a thousand insect feet were crawling over her. Icy terror gripped her.)

The writer must bring the conflict between the h/h to a warm and satisfying resolution so that the reader knows these two people will walk off happily into the sunset together.

Before the h/h can walk off into the sunset, they must confront and defeat the malevolent forces bent on wiping them from the face of the earth. Clearly, romances are not “all the same.” More on the subtle and not so subtle differences next time.

 What kind of romance do you like best and what do you write? One commenter will receive an autographed copy of GUARDING GRACE. But please, if you want to be eligible for a book, include an e-mail address or your Twitter handle so I can contact you easily. If you’d prefer not to make your e-mail address public, send it to with Subject: “It’s Not Shake and Bake” Blog.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

More on That Crucial First Chapter

“My first chapter’s not that great, but wait until you get to chapter three.”

I’m not making that up. It’s from a real query letter my former agent received.

The clueless author looking for representation wasn’t going to grab an agent with that letter, and she wasn’t going to hook any readers with her story.  Your first chapter is one of the most crucial in your book.  Along with the ending, which better leave the reader longing for more of your work.

I’ve been discussing first chapters for several posts now.  Let me wrap up with a few more points.

Don’t promise the reader something you’re not going to deliver.  You can’t write a fantastic first scene that will have nothing to do with the rest of the story. (Like in those old James Bond movies where the opening was an action set piece with no connection to the rest of the movie.) The beginning must tie into what follows and start the character development and plot that continue throughout the story.

As I write my first few chapters, I’m getting to know my characters. I may think I understand their motivation, their traits and their conflicts, but I never truly get into their heads until I’ve written forty or fifty pages from their point of view. I may have ideas about what they’re like, but I can’t fully know them until they start reacting to the situations my plot creates.

And here’s a piece of good news about your first chapter and every chapter.  What you write isn’t set in stone just because the words are on the screen or even printed out.  You can always write in haste and edit later.  My goal is often to “get it down” so I have something to work with.  I can make improvements and new ideas when I’ve got a little distance from my first draft.  I usually go back and rewrite my first chapter after I’ve written more of the book. Usually my second thoughts on both my character and plot are a significant part of the finished product.

We’re always told that tension and conflict keep the reader turning the pages, but don’t start with too high a level of tension. The example I like to use is from a suspense novel I picked up years ago. In the first chapter, a diplomat is kidnapped and tortured by terrorists. They castrated him, and as he bled to death, I decided that I didn’t want to read a book that began with quite that much threat. I was pretty sure the hero was going to fall into these guys’ hands, and I didn’t want to be around to worry about his emerging with his manhood intact.

Back to what you should accomplish with your own writing. While it’s important to polish your first few sentences to a burnished glow, its final impact should have equal weight.

Try to end the first chapter (and every following chapter) with a cliff-hanger, a tantalizing last line or couple of lines that will make the reader burn to discover what happens next.

In the Intrigue I’m writing now, Carrie’s Protector, the hero and heroine are hiding out from terrorists who plan to kill them. The first chapter ends with:

Down the hall, Wyatt could hear doors opening and slamming shut again.  When the door to the office where they were hiding opened, every muscle in his body tensed. He saw a shadow flicker on the wall--the shadow of a man holding a gun. The guy stood still for a moment, then started across the tile floor toward their hiding place.  

And here’s the ending of Sarah Zettel’s first chapter in Sword of the Deceiver:

And it was done.  Natharie lifted her head and met her parents' eyes. Father looked sad, but Mother's eyes were wild.  She looked as if she would jump to her feet and shout denial just as the priest had, but she did not move.  She could not move. Natharie had cast the dice, and only the Awakened One now could see how they would land. 

I think both of those make you want to find out what happens next.

Thanks for stopping by. What are your thoughts on first chapters? Do you have any good examples of ending with a cliff-hanger?  What didn’t I cover in the discussion of first chapters that you’d like to hear about?

One commenter will win an autographed copy of one of my recent Harlequin Intrigues.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick

Sunday, July 8, 2012

More on How to Hook the Reader from the Start

It would be possible to write a whole book on how to start a book. (See previous post for more.)

Most romances begin with a scene from the point of view of either the hero or heroine. If the first scene starts with one of them, you need to give the reader reasons to like this character. It should be someone she wants to identify with and root for. If the main character is not likable, he or she had better be someone so intriguing that the reader has to keep turning the pages to find out more. If the heroine is doing something mean and petty at the beginning of the story, probably the reader’s going to be turned off. Or if the hero is acting like a jerk, there had better be a good reason why.

Of course, there is a type of romance where one of the main characters is unlikable but will change significantly throughout the course of the story. I think this kind of character development is difficult to pull off unless you are very skilled and experienced.

A wonderful example is The Hellion, by LaVyrle Spencer. At the beginning of the story, the hero, Tommy Lee, is a mess. He’s drinking beer, tossing away the cans, and raising hell. Yet he’s going to be redeemed by the love of a good woman, if he allows himself the to reach out for that love. Another great example is Lord Dane in Lord of Scoundrels.

If you’re going this route, at the very least, you need to give hints that this character will change and/or give compelling reasons for the way he/she is acting.

In a romance, you want the hero and heroine to meet as soon as possible. It's not a must that they interact in the first chapter, but in a romance you can't delay the meeting too long because the reader wants to follow the development of their relationship and see them on the page together as much as possible. In a short romance the focus will be almost entirely on them and the development of their relationship. In a longer romance you have room to develop secondary characters and plot lines.

Another way to “get them together” at the beginning of the story is to alternate scenes from each point of view. These two people are not together, but you know they will be.

I use this method in Dragon Moon. The heroine’s story begins while she is still living in an alternate universe and being prepared to come here. I have scenes from her point of view, then switch to the hero in our world. I bring them together when she comes through a portal between the worlds just as a thunderstorm strikes, and she’s pinned down by a falling tree. The hero and heroine meet as he finds and rescues her.

In a romance, the h/h are drawn to each other. But you must set up conflicts at the beginning that will keep them from working out their differences until the end of the story.

In Tempted by his Target, by Jill Sorenson, the heroine’s on the run in Mexico from mobsters who want to murder her because the mob boss thinks she murdered his son. The hero’s a federal agent with the job of bringing her back to face murder charges. He finds her and pretends to be her friend and protector while trying to turn her over to the authorities. Naturally he falls in love with her. But what’s going to happen when she finds out he’s been playing her?

In my Decorah Security novella, Chained, Isabella hides out at her father’s old ranch. And the hero’s there. Or is he?  She thinks he died five years ago. Is his ghost haunting the ranch?  Or is something else going on?  Isabella and Matt were in love with each other, but neither of them could act on the attraction. Now she’s alone with his ghost, and all the sexual longing comes bubbling to the surface. But how can she have a relationship with him?  And is there a way to “bring him back to life”?

At the beginning of your story you must give the reader some idea what these people look like. In fact, many romance writers spend a lot of time on physical description. I think it’s more important to have an interior picture of the main characters. What motivates them?  What are their values?  How do they react under stress?  Don’t tell us. Illustrate these traits through their actions and reactions.

If your first chapter has the h/h interacting with secondary characters, don’t let the secondaries take over. The primary focus should be on the main characters. Also, in a romance, you probably want the first person the heroine interacts with to be the hero.

My own beginnings tend to be action scenes where something dangerous is happening usually to the hero or heroine. If I don’t think I can have a dynamic opening using the hero and or heroine, I might turn to a secondary character.

In my Decorah Security novel, Dark Moon, I start with a scene where a woman is being kidnapped. You don’t know much about her. But you know she’s in trouble. She’s not the heroine. She’s the victim that the hero and heroine are sent to rescue. But I started with her so the reader would understand the urgency and danger of the situation.

You could also give the villain the first scene. One of the most impressive examples of this is in The Key to Rebecca, by Ken Follett. It has that famous first line, “The last camel died at noon.”  In the scene, a Nazi spy is sneaking into World War II Cairo across the desert, and he almost loses his life in the attempt. Almost, but not quite. He survives to give the hero and heroine big problems.

And, by the way, The Key to Rebecca is very much romantic suspense. When I was just getting into the field, I came across that book and read it. I loved it, and my reaction was, “that’s what I want to write.”

Let’s end with a warning. Don’t promise the reader something you’re not going to deliver. You can’t write a fantastic first scene that will have nothing to do with the rest of the book. (Like in those old James Bond movies where the opening was a set piece with no connection to the rest of the movie.)  The initial action must tie into the narrative and start the character development that continues throughout the story along with your plot.

There’s so much to say on beginnings that I’ll continue the subject next time. And I’ll give a book, Solid as Steele, to one commenter. Some of you gave us examples of great beginning last time. We’d love to hear some more. Or tell us about a book where the hero or heroine starts off as unlikable but changes significantly as the story progresses.

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hook ‘Em with the First Chapter

We live in the age of sound bites, short attention spans and remote controls where you can change the channel with the push of a button.  The same is true for novels.  Your first few paragraphs are crucial for pulling the reader into the story.  If you don’t hook her right away, she’s likely to put your book down and pick up another one.  

Which means you have to make that first sentence, that first paragraph, and that first chapter count.  Polish them until they sparkle. Immediately involve the reader.  Intrigue her.  Make her wonder what will happen next.

In my experience there are two kinds of romance writers who hit the reader with too much background right at the beginning: new writers who are unsure where to start their story and big names who are so confident of their audience that they may spend a lot of time “clearing their throats” before they get to the good part.

Let’s look at some examples of great beginnings. The first line of Julie Garwood’s Honor’s Splendour is

 “They meant to kill him.”

Don’t you wonder why?  And how is he going to survive to be the hero of the story?

One of my own favorite opening lines is from my novella “Huntress Moon” in  Elemental Magic:

 “Which do you choose?  Disgrace or slavery?”  

The sentence plunges the reader directly into the action of the story.  You don’t know who the heroine is or what brought her to this moment in time.  All you know is that she’s confronting a terrible decision.

Or consider Taken to the Edge, by Karen Lennox, which begins:

If one Wild Turkey on ice didn’t make the pain go away, maybe  two would.  That’s was Ford Hyatt’s thinking when he’d ordered a second drink even though he needed to drive home.

What’s going on with this guy?  And why?

Remember in Amadeus when Salieri accuses Mozart of using “too many notes.” It was meant as a joke in the movie.  It’s not so funny in a novel.  I’ve made up a name for “too many words.”  I call it "wundeling."  And I also use the term to describe scenes when the hero or heroine is endlessly thinking the same thing over and over.

Getting a book off to a good start isn’t easy. I usually find that in the beginning of a book, I’ve slowed down the scene with too much information.  I’m constantly asking myself–does the reader need to know this now?  Is this vital here?  Can I wait and tell the reader this detail later?

In reality, the plot of your story probably begins long before the actual first chapter. But you want to start the book at the latest possible moment, at a point when everything changes for the main characters.

Later through dialogue, narrative, and perhaps flashbacks, you will let the reader know what happened before the book started. One of my favorite metaphors is--start with a dead horse in the living room; plunge the reader into the middle of a situation.  Don’t confront the reader with an information dump.   Give her just enough details so she can follow along.  There’s ample opportunity to fill in the background later.

In my own books, I’m most likely to open with the hero or the heroine, as in Chained, my Decorah Security novella.  In the first scene, the heroine arrives home from work to find two thugs hiding in the house.  They are there  to murder her, and her immediate problem is to escape.

Here’s how Chained begins.

Chapter One

Isabella Flores pulled open the kitchen door and stopped in her tracks.  The house felt wrong.  Come to that, it smelled wrong.  The familiar scents of the empanadas she’d cooked the night before and the cleaning solution she used on the floor still hung in the air.  But they were over laid by the smell of sweat and stealth.

Moments ago she’d been prepared to fall into bed and sleep for the next eight hours, after an exhausting shift on the surgical floor at Phoenix General Hospital.

Instead, she backed out the door and started running, not toward the car she’d just left in the driveway but into the alley.
A blast of noise followed her, and she felt a bullet whiz past her head.

“Christo. Don’t let her get away,” a harsh voice shouted.

Two hombres.  Waiting in the dark for her.

She’d hoped she was safe living in this quite, middle-class neighborhood, but she’d always been prepared for the worst.  She kept two bags packed, one in the trunk of her car and the other in an SUV, hidden down the block.  
She leaped the waist-high chain link fence of a neighbor’s yard on the other side of the alley, rolled into a flower bed, and lay with her heart pounding, praying that the men hadn’t seen her vanish into the shadows.

As two sets of heavy footsteps pounded toward her then sprinted past, she let out the breath she’d been holding.  But she couldn’t stay here.  When they didn’t find her, they’d double back.  Which meant she had only minutes to make her escape.

I think you know a fair amount about this woman without my “telling you” facts.  Obviously, a lot has happened before the story begins.  Some of the background is woven into the scene.  You know she’s a nurse.  You know she’s been living her life expecting trouble.  You know she’s planned her escape and is prepared to leave at a moment’s notice.  And you’ll find out more later.

I’m going to talk more about beginnings next time. I’d love it if you give me some beginnings you admire in your comments.  And one commenter can win a copy of my Intrigue Sudden Attraction. (That begins with a bang, of course.)

 Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Essence of Romance

She was aware of him the moment he stepped into the room full of laughing, talking people.  As he made his way through the crowd, the sights and sounds around her faded.  She could see only him, and she felt her skin tingle, her chest tighten.

They had parted in anger two weeks ago.  And when she walked away from him, she knew their relationship could never work out.  Yet here he was, stalking purposefully toward her.
When she saw the look in his eyes, her heart skipped a beat, then started again in double time.  He was silently telling her that he needed her in every way a man could need a woman.  That their past differences were nothing compared to his love for her.

That’s the essence of a romance.  Two people in love.  Aching for each other but unable to work out their problems until the end of the book and sharing their emotions with the reader who is rooting for them to solve their problems.

There’s a reason why more romance novels are sold than any other type.  And it’s not just because women buy more books than men.  Romance is a genre of hope and optimism.  An affirmation of life and the values of love and commitment.  In a romance the heroine wins.  She ends up with the man she loves, a man who puts her above every other aspect of his life--and a relationship that will last because it has been forged in the fire of adversity.

And the reader gets what she wants.  A happy ending where the hero and heroine walk off together into the sunset, leaving you wishing you could read more of their story.

Like every other genre, romance has grown and evolved.  When I first started speaking at conferences or gave workshops, I used to tell people that the plot of a romance novel is the development of a relationship between a man and a woman.  Today I say it could be the development of a relationship between a woman and a lizard creature from the planet Alpha Lasagna.  Or a relationship between two men.  Or two women.

Yet the fundamentals remain the same.  And they always will as long as we want to laugh and cry, lust and love along with the characters in the books we read.  And as long as writers can give us characters who dare to reach out for love in the most unlikely place and then are rewarded with a relationship that will last a lifetime.

If you’re reading my first blog entry, I assume you’re interested in the romance genre.  Are you a reader or a writer?  And what’s your favorite type of story–historicals, contemporary, romantic suspense, inspirational, paranormal?

If you want insights into how a romance is written–whether from the perspective of a reader or a writer--come back for the next entry.  Next time I’m going to talk about great beginnings and how to grab the reader’s interest immediately.

I’m giving away a copy of my Harlequin Intrigue, SUDDEN INSIGHT, to one person who comments on this post.

 Copyright © 2012 Ruth Glick