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Friday, April 29, 2011

Sophomore Slump

Please welcome guest blogger Kasey Mackenzie

Sophomore Slump: An occurrence when a sophomore (or second) effort does not live up to the standards of the first.

With the release of my debut urban fantasy last year, I figured I’d gotten most of the jitters that come for a newly-published author out of the way and would be much less nervous come the second time around. Okay, not so much. Sure, in some ways I’m much less nervous than this time last year. The foremost fear, that my book secretly sucked great big monkey…bananas, was proven unfounded. Not everyone hated my book; in fact, it got quite a few positive reviews from authors established in my genre, Publishers Weekly, Romantic Times, and—most importantly in the grand scheme of things—a good number of readers. I know what to expect this time as far as the editing, marketing, and promotion sides of things go. I’m no longer in that no-man’s land of having a publishing contract but not actually being published. I have an answer for people who ask, “Can I buy your book in stores now?” (Yes, plskthx!) But with that now-established track record comes something you typically don’t even think about until it’s actually happening to you: extra pressure.

The extra pressure that comes from living up to the expectations that fans of the first book naturally have for book two. The extra pressure that comes from wanting to better please some of the readers who didn’t quite fall in love with book one. In other words, wanting to avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump.” Common sense tells you that no matter what you do the second time around, you’re never going to please everybody. You’re going to disappoint someone; trying to avoid that truth means you’ll disappoint yourself most of all by attempting the impossible. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t take the constructive bits of criticism for book one and apply it to book two. But how?

All I can do, of course, is relate how I did it. I’m one of those rare beasts: an author who can read even the harshest of reviews without wanting to curl up in a little ball and die. Don’t get me wrong, negative reviews don’t bring me pleasure, especially not the ones of the This is the biggest pile of dog crap in history I hope this author and everyone who ever knew her contracts a horrible disease and suffers for publishing this drivel! stripe. But reading them (for me) is like ripping off a band-aid: it stings a little bit at first, but once that initial pain fades, I’m able to look at it more objectively. The first thing I remind myself is that most (if not all) reviews are for readers and not me personally. That said, I also strive to improve myself whenever I can, so as long as the review isn’t of the afore-mentioned dog crap variety, chances are I’m going to find something in it that strikes a chord and I can keep in mind when working on my next book.

That’s what I did when sitting down to write the second book in my Shades of Fury series; considered the common elements I’d seen mentioned in online and print reviews. What did most people think I did strongly in book 1? I made a mental list and decided to try and play to as many of those strengths as possible in book 2. For instance: most loved the fast and furious (pun intended) pace of Red Hot Fury. Many loved even more the way I used relatively under-used (in urban fantasy) mythological creatures like Furies and Harpies. On the flip side, what complaints seemed to pop up a lot (or at least more than once or twice)? Did those comments resonate with me? Sometimes defensiveness had me wanting to discredit the comments initially; but I made myself come back to them later and consider them rationally. Was the reader complaining about something I did intentionally or unintentionally? If unintentionally, I again made a mental note to try and remember than when writing book 2. As a specific example, some readers were annoyed by my shortening full names to nicknames in Red Hot Fury. My off-the-cuff response was to think, “Well, of course my protagonist shortens names: it’s in first person POV and she refers to people by the name she thinks of them, not necessarily their full name.” When I thought about it later, I could see how some people might be distracted by that so decided to try and avoid doing that too much outside of dialogue in the sequel. Of course, I still have to remain true to my protagonist’s voice, but hopefully I can find a happy medium.

So what about the instances when readers complained about choices I made consciously? A prime example of this for me was that some readers complained that they saw who the villain was a mile away and it wasn’t much of a mystery. In this particular instance, my initial response remained the same upon later reflection. While sorry that some readers were disappointed in that aspect of my story, I told the story I wanted to. The revelation of the villain isn’t supposed to be a mystery to the reader, but to my protagonist. Readers go through that betrayal with my protagonist from her viewpoint but without being blinded by her past history, experiences, and emotions toward that person. Of course we see the betrayal coming long before she does. We’re expecting it! The story I wanted to tell in book 1 wasn’t a whodunit filled with multiple red herrings where the reader isn’t quite sure who the true villain is. The story, for me, came from watching my protagonist as she figured out who the villain was and how she reacted to that discovery. Even then, however, I did take that complaint into account when writing book 2. While I was satisfied with book 1 and the story I told, I also do appreciate a good mystery and wanted book 2 to follow that basic structure more closely than the first. I hope that fact shows in the twists and turns that book 2 take. The identity of the villain should be much more of a surprise for most readers this time around. At the same time I desire to appeal to even more readers in the sequel, I also hope readers who did love book 1 will find as much to love in book 2. Hey, hope springs eternal, right?

While I’m sure that Green-Eyed Envy won’t live up to the expectations of all readers, I do hope that most will think it a worthy sequel to Red Hot Fury. By considering criticism both positive and negative when writing book 2, I definitely think I ended up writing an even stronger book than the first time around. I’m proud of it and the hard work I put into it. When it comes down to it, that’s all any writer—published or unpublished—can do. Whatever anyone else thinks, I know I did my best to avoid that dreaded “sophomore slump.” Hopefully, more readers will agree with me than don’t. Either way, I’m on to the one thing in all this I actually have control over: working on Book 3 (the junior year)!

Kasey Mackenzie lives with her husband and son in St. Louis, Missouri; home of the Gateway Arch, the baseball Cardinals, and the world’s greatest thin-crust pizza. Kasey was one of those students who always had her nose in a book—so no big surprise when she was voted “Teacher’s Pet” in her high school yearbook. Today, she is a voracious reader of fantasy, romance, suspense, and “soft” science fiction. She adores her German shepherd puppy, two cats, playing softball, and has recently taken up knitting. So far she can cast on, do the knit stitch, and cast off. Hey, it’s a start!

Red Hot Fury

Hell hath nothing worse than a Fury scorned…

As a Fury, Marissa Holloway belongs to an Arcane race that has avenged wrongdoing since time immemorial. As Boston’s Chief Magical Investigator for the past five years, she’s doing what she was born to: solving supernatural crimes.

It’s far from business as usual when the body of one of Riss’s sister Furies washes up in Boston harbor. Riss discovers that the corpse’s identity has been magically altered, but as soon as she reports her findings, she’s immediately—and inexplicably—suspended from her job. Then a human assassin makes an attempt on her life, and Riss starts to realize that someone may be trying to stir up strife between mortals and Arcanes.

When a Fury gets mad, she gets even, and Riss is determined to untangle this case. Without the support of the mortal PD, Riss turns to the one man she can trust to watch her back—shapeshifting Warhound Scott Murphy. But since Scott is also Riss’s ex, she’ll have to keep a tight leash on more than just the supernatural rage that feeds her power as they try to solve a murder—and stop a war…

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

How Do You Do It?

Please welcome guest blogger D.B. Reynolds

The first question people frequently ask me, after they discover I’ve written a book (or two or three or …) is, “How do you do it? How do you come up with enough words to make a whole book?” Well, first of all, I love what I do; I love to write. And maybe that makes it easier. Unlike many jobs (dare I say most?) when I work on one of my stories, it brings me nothing but pleasure. I sit in my own home office (or sometimes on the couch) with all the comforts of home nearby, and I lose myself in a world of my own creation. It’s a dream come true.

So, that’s a good start. But what comes next? After all, I could be sitting on my couch playing endless games, instead of writing! So, how to begin? Well, before my heroine can take her first step, I have to create both her and the world she lives in. Whether the story is a fantasy or a modern day mystery, every city, every building, every room she enters has to be made real. And not every story can take place in my hometown in Southern California.

Some of my stories happen in places I’ve been. But if not, there’s the all-powerful Internet, where one can find pictures of just about every place on earth. I use topographical maps and Google maps too. Also, sites like Flickr which have static images of almost everything. And then, if I need a particular kind of house in a particular kind of neighborhood, I look up the real estate listings. If I need a building on a University campus, I check out the incoming student info at UB. A bus route, the weather, or, since I’m writing about vampires, when the sun rises and sets—it’s all on the Internet and it’s all information I need to make my world real.

Another of my WIPs, takes place in a galaxy far, far away. (Are you seeing words scroll away from you on-screen as the music begins to play? Yeah, me too.) There are no Google maps for far, far away, but there ARE a lot of details involved in designing a planet, especially one that will support human life (and still support my plot!) I had to check out solar flares, elliptical orbits, FTL travel, laser weaponry, and all sorts of flora and fauna. Or maybe it’s an epic fantasy. No cars, no planes, no space ships either. But my characters still have to travel. After all, it wouldn’t be much of an epic if it all happened in the same castle, would it? So I need to know how far a horse can travel in a day while carrying a person and supplies. How much food, how much water, how many miles per day. And more weaponry, but swords this time, bows and arrows, body armor appropriate to the setting.

And then my worlds need to be populated. Not just my main characters, but everyone else. Innkeepers, clerks, and taxi drivers, siblings and parents (unless they’ve died tragically in the prologue, of course.) There are neighbors and bosses, and sometimes there are vampires and werewolves. Not just the starring roles, but all the others, too. These people need names and descriptions. There are a number of good name engines on the web, and the ever reliable baby names sites, too. For descriptions, there are a couple of engines which will deliver physical descriptions, and some people use the FBI’s Most Wanted sites for facial descriptions! Great idea, although I generally don’t use them. I usually have a strong physical image of every character as soon as they pop into my head.

But then, there’s the plot. My characters have to have a purpose, something that propels them forward through the story. Sitting around a warm fire, reading a good book and drinking hot chocolate is a lovely way to spend a cold, winter afternoon, but it’s not much of a story. So my main characters have to be put in danger, or given a mission to save the world (or just each other) or solve a crime or stop a bad guy before he commits a crime. Something to move them forward, something to vest the reader in the story.

And all of this has to be down on paper before I’ve actually written a single word of story. But as important as they are, the story is so much more than these details. The art of writing is crafting these details into words which transport the reader into my world, seeing what I see in my head, or even more importantly, seeing what my characters see in their heads and feel in their hearts. I can’t just say “Cyn walked into the room” and leave it at that. How did she walk into the room? Was she strolling, running, striding? And what did the room look like? Sunlit, moonlit? No windows? No furniture? A fire burning? And who else was there? The lovely Raphael, maybe? It’s always such a pleasure to describe Raphael ::sigh::.

But I love all my characters and all my stories. I love writing. And to the extent I succeed in taking my readers away for a few hours … I love that, too. So, when someone asks me, “How do you write a book?” I could tell them all of the stuff I’ve written above. But the honest answer would be …I don’t know. It’s just there in my head demanding to be let out.

D. B. Reynolds writes the award-winning Vampires in America series, the second book of which, JABRIL, recently received the 2010 RT Reviewers Choice Award for Indie Press Paranormal Romance. She has also received two Emmy nominations for her work in Sound Editing and lives with her husband of many years in a flammable canyon near Los Angeles.


The Pacific Northwest . . . home to lush forests and constant rain, to lumberjacks and computer geeks, especially those of the vampire kind.

Sophia, beautiful and deadly, has spent the last hundred years dancing her way through the balmy nights and hot-blooded men of South America. But when her Sire sends an urgent summons, Sophia rushes home to Vancouver only to find he has disappeared, leaving nothing behind but three dead vampires and a letter with Sophia’s name on it.

Colin Murphy, a former Navy SEAL, came to the Northwest seeking a quiet place to heal the scars earned in more than a decade at war. But when someone starts killing local vampires and torturing their mates, Colin takes on the mantle of a warrior once again as he sets out to find the killers and do whatever it takes to stop them, even if that means hunting with vampires.

Following her Sire’s trail of death to a small town in northern Washington, Sophia unexpectedly discovers the heat of a South American night in Colin’s arms. But too soon Sophia and Colin find themselves in a race to uncover the killers before the next dead vampire becomes Sophia herself.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Character Counts

Please welcome guest blogger Genie Davis

No matter what kind of fiction we write, or how exciting our plot lines, character is everything. Regardless of what genre you’re writing, the characters you are writing about are the substance of your book.

It is because of who your characters are that certain actions take place and actually become your plot. It is because of who your characters are that they speak in a certain way, reside in a specific place, interact with other characters who in turn shape your story and your characters’ world.

Think of your book as if it were a living, breathing being - after all, it is, isn’t it? If the action of your book is the spine, and your theme or purpose is the heart, what is the life blood? What makes the story work, the heart beat? The characters.

All too often we become, as writers, focused on “getting the story down.” We focus on the theme, the wisdom, the point of the book, and we walk our characters through the mechanics we’ve set up for them without exploring the reasons they are walking.

And you finish your book and you find that in all ways it is competent, it is what you meant to write about, the language may be beautiful, the plot structure superb and yet there feels like there is something missing. That it doesn’t quite work.

What could be missing is character depth, the point at which your characters are rich enough, full enough, three dimensional enough that you know what they’d order when they walk into a diner, what they’d wear to bed, what they think about when they first wake up in the morning.

If you want your characters to come alive, to be memorable, to walk off the page and maybe even tell you what they are doing on that page, you need to know them. You need to make each of them count.

Here are some simple ways to make your characters count.

1. Gender. Each sex has distinctive styles of speech and speech patterns, and innate way of relating to the world. Naturally sex affects many aspects of your character, but in terms of basic conversation it’s particularly evident, or it should be. Women tend to ask more questions than men, and use more words that are considered qualifiers (kinda, almost, sort of) in their speech.

2. Careers and status. Your character’s walk of life is very important. A used car salesman will relate to the world differently than a poet. A used car salesman who wants to be a poet will also relate to the world differently. An unsuccessful used car salesman poet will relate differently to the world than a highly successful salesman up for a promotion who likes to write poetry in his/her spare time.

3. What about his/her parents? What did they do? Where were they from?

4. Where was your character raised? And where does your character live now? That used car salesman poet from the deep South whose mother worked in a cotton mill is different from the one in Los Angeles whose father was a famous actor.

5. What is your character’s name? Not just the nickname he’s using now, but his full heritage. First, last, middle, and what his teacher called him in grade school. Do your research - there’s plenty of web help on first and last names - names by region or ethnicity, historical names.

6. Describing your character. This applies to both physical traits and emotional ones, visible and invisible.

7. Descriptive words. Free associate. Write down a list of words that describe something about your character.

8. How your character feels at the beginning of your story - or of his appearance in your story. The characters feelings will of course change, as they must for the drama of your story to occur - but how does he feel when you first begin?

Some characters - your p.i., your romantic swashbuckling hero, your biographical subject - will remain in a more fixed emotional state than others. But regardless of how much your character does or wants to change - or not - you need a sense of how that person is feeling at the beginning of his role in your story.

A caveat — just because you need to know this information about your character, your reader may not.

Genie Davis is a published novelist and produced screen and television writer. Her noir flavored romantic suspense The Model Man (Kensington) received the Road to Romance Reviewer’s Choice Award. A second humor infused romantic suspense, Five O’Clock Shadow (Kensington) has been released both in the U.S. and in multi-country foreign markets. Her erotic romance novella Rodeo Man was released under the name Nikki Alton in The Cowboy anthology by Kensington/Aphrodisia. It received a Passionate Plume award. Her first novel, the literary work Dreamtown, was published by a small press, The Fiction Works.

In film, her work spans a variety of genres from supernatural thriller to romantic drama, family, teen, and comedy with an emphasis on independent film. A member of the Writer’s Guild of America, she’s written on staff for ABC-TV’s Port Charles; written, produced, and directed reality programming and documentaries for TLC, Lifetime, PBS, and HGTV, as well as numerous television commercials and corporate videos.

She’s also written dozens of articles on travel, love, writing, sex, child-rearing and more for ezines, blogs and websites.

Character Counts, presented by Genie Davis, runs from May 2, 2011 through May 30, 2011

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Getting Your Story Off to the Right Start

Please welcome guest blogger Beth Cornelison

Daisy Devreaux had forgotten her bridegroom's name. (Kiss An Angel, Susan Elizabeth Phillips)

"Megan Hoffman, you're under arrest." (My book, Danger at Her Door)

One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace bikini underpants. They weren't hers. (Tell Me Lies, Jennifer Crusie)

Kate Chabeau stared down at the sweaty blond man working feverishly between her thighs and waited to die. (Heat of the Moment, Diana Duncan)

Jackson McKay woke with a jolt. (My book, Under Fire)

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping. (The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins)

What do these opening lines have in common? Well, besides being some of my favorite book openings by a few of my favorite authors, these story openings catch your attention. The reader asks, "How could she forget her groom's name?" "So whose underpants were they?" "Why is she going to die?" "What is a reaping, and why would it cause nightmares?"

In other words, these openings hook you from the get-go and make you read on to find out what is going on and what will happen next. More than that, the opening lines help set the tone for the book to follow, whether romantic comedy, suspense, or a dark futuristic adventure. And as the first lines of a book go, so go the next several paragraphs, pages, chapters.

The opening of a story is critical... and perhaps the hardest to write. An author has so many jobs in those first few pages: introducing the characters, the conflict, the setting. Filling the reader in on any pertinent background information. Creating a mood. Setting up a story question that will take the reader (and protagonist) on an intriguing journey. And making the characters, setting, background, plot, conflict, story question and mood so interesting that the reader can't possibly put the book down but will keep turning pages and go along for the journey.

Is it any wonder that some writers spend months doing the Opening-Chapters Waltz? And one, two, three... one, two, three...one, two, three...

In May, I'll be teaching an online class in which I'll detail how to make these many elements of opening chapters shine. I'll cover:

1. Pre-planning and plotting. Even if you are a "pantser" writer, a general vision of where you are headed is important. You don't want your opening chapter to wander or feel fragmented or pointless.

2. Hooking the reader. As the opening lines I shared earlier demonstrate, giving the reader questions to ponder, reasons to keep reading, can begin as early as line one. First impressions can make or break a story, and you often won't have more than a page or two to convince an editor or reader your story is worth their time. Make those pages count!

3. Setting up interesting, believable characters. Characters are so much more than a job or a physical description, and the decisions your characters make will drive the story.

4. Establishing tone, theme and all those other things that will make your high school English teacher smile. Attention to details and storytelling craft can turn a good story into a keeper shelf treasure.

5. Keeping up the pace. Many things can affect the pace of your story, and a dragging pace is murder to a good plot.

6. Avoiding cliches and keeping your story fresh.

It may seem overwhelming to keep so many things in mind as you start writing your book, but it's not as daunting as all that. You have a clear picture in your head of who your characters are and they are interesting to you or you wouldn't want to write about them. Right?

Good luck and happy writing!!

Getting Your Story Off To The Right Start, presented by Beth Cornelison, runs from May 16, 2011 through June 12, 2011

Rita finalist Beth Cornelison received her bachelor's degree in Public Relations from the University of Georgia. After working in public relations for about a year, she moved with her husband to Louisiana, where she decided to pursue her love of writing fiction.

Since that time, she has won numerous honors for her work including the coveted Golden Heart for unpublished authors awarded by Romance Writers of America. She made her first sale to Silhouette Intimate Moments in June 2004 and has gone on to publish many more books with Silhouette. She has also published with Five Star Expressions, Samhain Publishing, and Sourcebooks.

Beth has presented workshops across the country to numerous chapter meetings, conferences, online classes and book clubs. Beth Cornelison lives in Louisiana with her husband, one son and a fluctuating number of cats who think they are people.

Reyn's Redemption

To claim her love, first he must reconcile his past…and catch a killer.

When firefighter Reyn Erikson returns to the small Louisiana town that branded him a killer, he doesn’t want trouble. He plans to slip in, help his hospitalized grandmother, and slip out again as silent as smoke. Instead he runs into two unintended flashpoints: his grandmother’s plea to find the truth behind his mother’s death. And sexy redhead Olivia Crenshaw.

The deeper they dig into the past, the more they uncover dark secrets that threaten their sizzling attraction—and draw a killer out of hiding.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends

Please welcome guest blogger Laura Bickle

Writing a novel is like falling in and out of love. It's a relationship with stages. There's bliss, angst, reconciliation, and letting go. There are beginnings, middles and ends. And also sometimes shouting and tears.

Beginnings are tough for me. Nothing intimidates me more than staring at a blank page. There's absolutely nothing there but a sea of white. I chew on my lip and doubt myself. Can I conjure something from nothing? What if it never comes together?

I reluctantly tap out a first line. A hook. I squint at it, chew on my lip some more.

Is this concept worth pursuing? Is it attractive enough to chase through the next several months, through research and dreams and the flu? Is it going to be one of those easy relationships, with effortless flow? Or will this one be like pulling my own teeth?

There's no way to know. I futz and mumble to myself and stare at the first five pages, dawdle around the first chapter. I fret aloud and talk to the cat about the new relationship.

The cat usually ignores me. I screw up the courage to take the plunge. I decide that I like the idea. I flirt with it a bit, chase it around like a butterfly. I court it. Sometimes, I can be trusted to even put on a clean T-shirt while typing. I'm trying to impress it. I even make an outline.

And it flirts back with me...with snatches of phrases. Images. I type and scribble notes, fearful of losing anything. Typing, typing...

And then I'm suddenly at the middle. I'm all of a sudden in a committed relationship with the book. I can feel it taking shape, developing a life of its own. It starts to have its own moods. Sometimes, it's cloying. Sometimes distant.

But we fall into a rhythm, greet each other at the same time every day. A standing date.

We talk. We do more than that. The book and I have discussions. In the middle, there are multiple ways for things to go. I try some things that work. I try some that don't. I pull out the note cards, fuss with my outline. I spread cards out on the floor all around me, trying to analyze and dissect what's working, what's not.

Sometimes, it's a test of endurance, pushing through. But I can see to the end. When I have the ending firmly structured, the last ten thousand words fly. It's bliss. I see where all the tendrils of thought and plot threads I had developed in the beginning curve back around. I think I understand the story, now: the hidden symbols, the growth of the character. I understand what it is about the story that attracted me to it. I understand what I'm afraid of about it.

The end is the best part. It gathers momentum, takes wing.

And flies right out of my hands. I type THE END on the last page.

And I feel a pang of sadness. It's gone. It's moved out of my life, out of my mind and my heart. There's still some tweaking to be done. Editing. Smoothing. But that part feels like the post-mortem of the relationship.

The story's gone. I did what I needed to: I gave the story a voice. And it left me. The nest's empty. Lonely.

And the only solution is to fill it again, with another egg of a story. Another beginning.

Laura Bickle has worked in library science, criminology, and technology for several years. She lives in the Midwestern U.S. with her chief muse, owned by four mostly-reformed feral cats. Writing as Laura Bickle, she's the author of EMBERS and SPARKS for Pocket - Juno Books. Writing as Alayna Williams, she's the author of DARK ORACLE and ROGUE ORACLE. More info on her urban fantasy and general nerdiness is here: www.salamanderstales.com

Rogue Oracle

The more you know about the future, the more there may be to fear.

Tara Sheridan is the best criminal profiler around - and the most unconventional. Trained as a forensic psychologist, Tara also specializes in Tarot card reading. But she doesn't need her divination skills to realize that the new assignment from her friend and sometime lover, Agent Harry Li, is a dangerous proposition in every way.

Former Cold War operatives, all linked to a top-secret operation tracking the disposal of nuclear weapons in Russia, are disappearing. There are no bodies, and no clues to their whereabouts. Harry suspects a conspiracy to sell arms to the highest bidder. The cards - and Tara's increasingly ominous dreams - suggest something darker. Even as Tara sorts through her feelings for Harry and her fractured relationships with the mysterious order known as Delphi's Daughters, a killer is growing more ruthless by the day. And a nightmare that began decades ago in Chernobyl will reach a terrifying endgame that not even Tara could have foreseen…