Wednesday, October 26, 2011
My favorite holiday, Halloween, is coming up, and with the focus on costumes, decorations and all things spooky, I started wondering about paranormal activity. As an author of paranormal romance, this is also one of my preferred topics. So I thought I’d dig around to see what new stories I could come up with.
The Tower of London
One of the best known hauntings of this scene of murders, executions and poisonings is that of Anne Boleyn. She lost her head on Tower Green after a very stormy interlude with the King. Why wouldn’t she be seen carrying her head tucked beneath her arm? During WWI, a sergeant serving with the Artist’s Rifles was on duty the night before several spies were to be executed. Before Carl Lody was executed, the sergeant claimed to see the ghost of Anne Boleyn wearing a filmy white dress with a ruff.
The Tulip Staircase
In the Queen’s House at the Naval College of London, footfalls were often heard traversing the staircase at night. In 1966, the Reverend Hardy and his wife used time-lapse photography in hopes of capturing this figure. This is what they got…
Is that the glimmer of a ring we see on the ghost’s hand?
An abandoned 18th century village in Connecticut, Dudleytown is one of America’s most intriguing scenes of haunting. The first settler in Dudleytown was thought to be cursed. His family was reputed to be descendents of a Lord in England who was executed with Lady Jane Grey, and also said to be the carriers of Bubonic Plague. Insanity, murder and suicide were staples of life in Dudleytown (and I thought my small town was filled with crazies!).
In the 19th century, ghosts and apparitions began to appear to the inhabitants of this village. One family who moved away was wiped out by Indians. A woman was struck by lightning and killed, and her husband went crazy shortly afterward. Corpse mutilations were reported, and soon the villagers began to give up on the town.
During the 1920’s, a prominent doctor set up a summer home in the abandoned town. One day, upon coming home, he found his wife laughing hysterically. She said while he was gone, the ghosts and demons had visited her. When they returned to their original New York residence, his wife took her life.
Edgar Allen Poe House
Poe’s house, which was rented from his aunt during the 1830’s, was located on Amity Street in Baltimore. The attic room where he lived is said to be so small, an adult has difficulty standing upright in it. During a “slum clearance” in 1939, the house was nearly demolished. But the Edgar Allen Poe Society saved it. One of the most interesting things to be seen there today is a portrait of Poe’s wife that was painted from her corpse!
In the 1970’s, the doors and windows reportedly opened on their own. A neighbor called the police after he saw strange lights in the upper floors of the house. In 1835, Poe’s wife did die in the house, and visitors to her room were tapped on the shoulder. A heavy-set woman with grey hair has been seen wandering the rooms.
And as early as 1999, local residents of the neighborhood have looked up at the house, only to see a figure of a man seated at a writing desk in the window.
Have you ever experienced a strange sighting? I’ll tell you mine. As a child of about four, I stayed the night with my grandmother. In the very tall window of her bedroom where I slept, I saw the figure of a woman dressed in long blue, fluttering robes. She drifted across the windowsill and extended a hand to me.
To this day the image is very vivid in my mind. Later when I told my grandmother, she just nodded and looked toward the window. Later I learned several of my aunts had seen the same woman in the same window during their teen years!
I’d love to hear from you. Tell me about a haunting!
When eight-year-old orphan Jack spies an otherworldly girl seated in the crook of a cherry tree, he’s instantly smitten with the dark waif known as the “Moon Child.” Over time they become inseparable and the steel tendrils of tenderness take hold of Jack, especially on nights of the full moon, when she seeks sanctuary in his bunk, begging him to silence the voices she hears.
Frantic to find a way to help, he is thwarted by family at every turn. By the time he’s an adult, his determination to uncover the secret drives him to defy the family’s strict orders and he learns his childhood love has transformed into the bonedriven need to be part of her life in a brand new way.
To free her from the life she fears, he first must trust himself. Only then can he break the pact naming the woman he loves as Guardian of the Indian Six Nations, which forces her to wander the night protecting their peoples and ensuring the Montgomery family’s prosperity, but to her, means certain death.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
I listened to a radio show once – not on a country station – but on NPR, I’m pretty sure, about the science of country music. See, they’d actually done these studies to determine what people liked to listen to on their favorite country stations. The most salient finding revealed that the songs people rated as their most favorite, an equal number of people would rate as the songs they hated the most. The songs that people rated as neutral or mediocre, though, were rarely chosen as wonderful or awful. Now, it’s not a surprise, I’m sure, that a hated song coming on the radio prompted people to turn the dial. Even though an equal number of people would be thrilled to hear the song, all their shadow-selves would drop out. Meanwhile, if a song is meh, people would take no action.
You can see where this is going, right? As a result of these studies, country music stations went to playing music that created no strong reaction, so people wouldn’t change the dial.
I think about this a lot with writing. We all have this idea that we’d like to have our work universally loved. We have this fantasy that people will read our new book and shower it with praise. Five-star reviews will rain down like manna from the heavens and small children will dance in the playgrounds singing happy songs about us. When we see a negative review, we feel like we’ve failed somehow. Like that’s a bad thing.
I’d like to put forth that getting strongly negative reviews says just as much about the strength of our stories as the strongly positive ones. It means we accomplished something. People don’t react strongly to nothing. And, according to the studies, for every person who hates it, there is another who loves it with equal fervor.
I’m reminding myself of this with my new release from Carina Press, SAPPHIRE. Granted the topic isn’t for everyone. Still, some of the early reviewers don’t like it at all. Other people are writing to me, saying how much they love it. One reviewer hated my hero with a fiery passion. I started to feel bad about it, then I saw that on the next book she said “she could barely remember what happened” in it. And I thought to myself, “Aha!” I would much rather have the dramatic reaction over the barely remember one.
It’s nice to have your song played on the radio, but if it’s only there to keep people from waking up and looking for something more, then is that what we really want?
I think not. It’s time to embrace the negative review for what it is: a visceral response to something real and vital.
That’s what I want to create.
Jeffe took the crooked road to writing, stopping off at neurobiology, religious studies and environmental consulting before her creative writing began appearing in places like Redbook, Puerto del Sol, Wyoming Wildlife, Under the Sun and Aeon. An erotic novella, Petals and Thorns, came out under her pen name of Jennifer Paris in 2010, heralding yet another branch of her path, into erotica and romantic fantasy fiction. Jeffe lives in Santa Fe, with two Maine coon cats, a border collie, plentiful free-range lizards and frequently serves as a guinea pig for an acupuncturist-in-training.
A successful executive, M. Taylor Hamilton is on track with her ten-year plan. Too bad her personal life consists of hitting the gym and grocery shopping.Enter the seductive Adam Kirliss. They may have a working relationship, but everything changes at an office party when he handcuffs her to the rail of a yacht.
Taylor writes the adventure off as too much champagne, but when Adam challenges her to a date, she agrees to meet up with him. And follow his rules. They share a night of exquisite intimacy, brimming with both pain and pleasure. But afterwards, fearful of losing her heart, Taylor pulls back emotionally.
Adam is determined to prove that she longs for the loss of control he can give her – and the passionate release it provides. How can he make her see that he wants her, and not just her body?
Monday, October 24, 2011
While I’m sure I’ve committed one or two of these myself, if I were the goddess of the paranormal romance universe, I would decree the following seven deadly sins:
SLOTH: Info Dumps. Nothing turns me off faster than a book that starts off with a long narrative explaining all the world building. Info dumps are lazy. They’re bad form. The details of your world should come to light slowly, layer upon layer, immersing the reader in the experience. For hints on how to do this, paranormal romance writers should study the best written fantasy.
LUST: Fetishism of the Supernatural. There’s a tendency for paranormal romance writers to fetishize the supernatural elements in the same way that science fiction writers sometimes fetishize the buttons and gadgets of their worlds. That your character is a werewolf isn’t all that interesting in and of itself. Not being a furry, I’m not turned on by long descriptions of fangs and silver-grey coats. And while the fact that your hero can identify anything with his superior sense of smell lends flavor to his persona and reality to your world, it’s not actually characterization. Obsessing on the blood sucking, the mysterious brotherhood, and the magical abilities may appeal to other readers who share this fetish–but it isn’t storytelling. There has to be more to hold the book together than a collection of neato cool superpowers. Paranormal has a place, but don’t use it as a crutch.
GLUTTONY: Big Chunks of Boring Dialog Meant to Convey Realism. Writing teachers everywhere tell budding young authors to listen to real dialog and use it as a model for what their characters should say. This only gets you so far. In real life, people wander off on tangents. They pause and hem and haw. In short, they bore the pants off one another. Why would you want to do that to your reader? Paranormal romance characters live extraordinary lives. We don’t have to hear them talk about their car trouble or what kind of ice cream they’re going to eat unless this has some bearing on the plot, or conveys something about their character, or is a delightful little detail sparingly tossed into the mix. Real life conversations can go on for hours. Conversations in fiction need to be tight and lean! Never overindulge.
GREED: Too Many Speculative Elements. The best paranormal romance takes the world as we know it, or the past as we imagine it, and twists one or two crucial elements, following the repercussions from those changes like ripples on a pond. The worst paranormal romance turns itself into a carnival for every strange and unexplained myth, magic, and phenomenon in the cosmos. Elves and vampires, mining together on Epsilon 4 with space aliens who are ruled by the Wicked Witch of the West in a kingdom called Oz…readers need to be able to focus. In a world where everything is possible, what is truly at stake? (A perfect example of how too much of a good thing can ruin a series, is the beautiful television series LOST which started out with an intriguing premise, but eventually piled so many new paranormal elements onto the stack that the whole thing collapsed under its own weight, bleeding viewers and disappointing fans.)
WRATH: Violence Overload. Most paranormal romance follows the trend of urban fantasy to put existential concerns at the forefront. It’s the fate of the whole world, country, city, species, brotherhood, or pack at stake. It’s gotta be bloody, too. A struggle for survival. Just once, I’d like to see a good secret baby vampire romance or a simple mistaken identity story between witches, or a marriage of convenience between werewolves. At the very least, I’d like to see interpersonal conflicts that focus on a developing relationship at the center of the book, rather than the danger and violence.
PRIDE: A Glossy of Terms. Look, if you want to put a glossary of terms at the back of the book for curious readers to look up terms as they arise, go for it. But putting it at the front of your story signals to me that you think you’re just too special to weave your special special language into your special special special book. It says that artful exposition is something paeans must use, but you are too good for it. You will make your readers actually look it up instead of being able to figure it out in context.
ENVY: Mary Sue Characters. We all want to be six foot bombshells who can kick butt in high heels, smite evildoers, and capture the heart of the sexiest angel ever to fall from heaven. But such heroines can’t be all wish fulfilment, quick-witted, never afraid, never at a loss for a words, and always right. It’s held as a given in paranormal romance circles that your hero can be a bastard but your heroine can’t be a bad girl. However, a reader can’t love her if she’s perfect. Put some dents in her armor and let the hero call her on her bullshit once in a while.
Stephanie Draven is currently a denizen of Baltimore, that city of ravens and purple night skies. She lives there with her favorite nocturnal creatures–three scheming cats and a deliciously wicked husband. And when she is not busy with dark domestic rituals, she writes her books.
Stephanie has always been a storyteller. In elementary school, she channeled Scheherazade, weaving a series of stories to charm children into sitting with her each day at the lunch table. When she was a little older, Stephanie scared all the girls at her sleepovers with ghost stories.
She should have known she was born to hold an audience in her thrall, but Stephanie resisted her writerly urges and graduated from college with a B.A. in Government. Then she went to Law School, where she learned how to convincingly tell the tallest tales of all!
A longtime lover of ancient lore, Stephanie enjoys re-imagining myths for the modern age. She doesn’t believe that true love is ever simple or without struggle so her work tends to explore the sacred within the profane, the light under the loss and the virtue hidden in vice. She counts it amongst her greatest pleasures when, from her books, her readers learn something new about the world or about themselves.
Stephanie also writes historical fiction as Stephanie Dray and has a series of forthcoming novels from Berkley Books featuring Cleopatra’s daughter.
Wrongfully accused and broken by torture, an American soldier transforms into a mind-controlling minotaur bent on revenge…
Escaping a hellish Syrian prison, U.S. serviceman Ray Stavrakis emerges with uncanny powers and an eerie ability to morph into a mythical Minotaur, half-man, half-bull. Only one woman can prove his innocence and soothe the savage beast inside–the same woman who’d driven him to the brink of insanity with her cool-eyed interrogation and her hot-blooded sensuality.
But Vegas psychologist Layla Bahset has no memory of Ray or her past. Only a feeling of being stalked by a nonhuman predator. Is it Ray…whose eyes condemn her soul even as his hands ignite her body? Or is another evil force hunting her down like prey?
Now nothing can stop Layla from remembering what she really is…and what her evil creator has planned for her and her soldier lover…
Thursday, October 20, 2011
This is one of my favorite workshops that I like to give at conferences and present to writers groups. My workshop offers a detailed analysis of the secondary character types.
Characters are, of course, the foundation for great stories and when it comes to secondary characters, I have grouped them by type and level of importance. I created a chart as an overview of the secondary character categories.
First let's review the purpose of all secondary characters:
• Aid the main character in his or her story goal and help define the main character’s role in the story.
• Provide obstacles that prevent the hero and heroine from reaching their goal.
• Force the hero and heroine to prove their worthiness in reaching their story goal.
• Help a main character grow and assist her in completing her character arc
• Provide contrast and comparison with the main character physically, emotionally and mentally
• Provide drama because conflict can’t happen in a vacuum
• Interact with the main character and force her to show her true colors.
• Broaden the scope of the story with texture and variety.
• Expand a story’s theme (ex: The Big Chill — reunion story that is enriched by the variety of character types.)
• Develop subplots that add multiple dimensions to the primary plot
Spear Carriers: These are character helpers who provide a small yet necessary service to the main character. A spear carrier is a bit player who isn't fully developed because he or she doesn't have a personal stake in the outcome of the story and will probably appear only once. This minor player may be planned ahead of time, but can also be created as needed. Examples of spear carriers would be the waitress who spills coffee on the heroine during a scene in a restaurant, or the traffic cop who gives the hero or heroine a speeding ticket when they're trying to get somewhere in a hurry.
Cameos: These secondaries play an even lesser role than spear carriers. They’re background figures, props that help set a scene or establish atmosphere. They have a brief on-screen performance without any personal stake in the story and are sprinkled throughout a book because they don’t compete with the hero or heroine for attention. Warning: be careful not to include too many details about a cameo that could risk derailing the plot in an unfocused direction.
Examples of cameos would be:
• a crowd in an accident scene (establishes location of town or city)
• the woman whose hat flies away as she walks down the street on a windy day (establishes weather conditions)
• a couple necking on a park bench (establishes setting and tone)
Ghosts: I'm not talking about the "woo-woo" kind of ghost. These are figurative characters made from memories, the ones who appear in name only and never have a physical presence on stage. Not every story will have ghosts, but they most often occur in backstory as the remembered ex-boyfriend, relative, best friend from high school, etc. Use sparingly because they are special. Though ghosts are fun to play with, too many in a story will make it odd and unbalanced.
Ghosts might include:
• "Her great grandma Mable used to always say..." (Mable might be a recurring ghost the heroine brings up to impress other characters with her words of wisdom)
• "His ex-wife haunts him to this day, and she isn’t even dead." (The hero finds remnants of his old married life at the most inopportune times, like a bra under the bed, bobby pins under the sink, etc.)
Allies: These are friends of the main character who offer aid and are commonly found in quest stories like the Wizard of Oz and Lord of the Rings. These characters share an ordeal that bonds them. Christopher Vogler, author of the Writers Journey, calls groups of allies “teams.”
An ally can be a best friend, co-worker, or a relative who has the heroine's best interests in mind. This is the person from whom the heroine would borrow a car or money, or ask for a place to stay.
An ally may or may not have a stake in the story’s outcome; it depends on how close you make him or her to the heroine. They will appear in several scenes and be more developed than a spear carrier.
You can afford to use more details in creating the ally. Once you decide the ally’s function, make sure there are contrasts and comparisons with the heroine that serve to show her true colors.
Guardians: The purpose of the guardian is to block the heroine's way toward her story goal. A guardian challenges the heroine and tests her strength and cunning.
There can be guardians who stand in the way of the villain, too. Villains are heroes of their own story and should face similar obstacles as the main character.
Obvious examples of guardians are night watchmen, doormen, bouncers, IRS auditors, anyone who presents a barrier the heroine must confront before moving forward through the plot.
Avoid using stereotypes to represent this type of character. Be original and creative. The guardian could be the heroine's big brother who’s trying to protect her from single men with questionable intentions, but he’s actually blocking her way to finding true love.
Rivals: Similar to a guardian’s role, rivals exist as obstacles to the heroine's story goal and act as her competition. Though rivals are enemies, a rival is not the villain because he or she only wants to compete and win, but not necessarily eliminate the heroine, which is the villain’s goal.
Rivals are foils who get in the way and can either be annoying barriers with comic side effects, or serious obstacles that stand to ruin the heroine's life.
Rivals are motivated by jealousy and envy, and can have low self-esteem. They may be weak characters, as opposed to a villain who is strong. Rivals are bullies, jealous ex-girlfriends, petty individuals with an axe to grind. It’s possible for a rival to change over the course of the story and become an ally. An example of this would be from the book and movie Legally Blond: El’s ex-boyfriend’s fiance starts out hating and fearing El’s relationship with her fiance, but by story’s end looks up to El for her intelligence and strength.
Mentors: The heroine goes to her mentor for advice. Mentors may have a limited relationship with the heroine, and might not even like her, but are compelled by their station (military officer) or moral obligation (priest) to help. If the mentor relationship begins as adversarial, it’s not unusual for a friendship to develop by story’s end because both characters grow by virtue of what the other has taught him or her, whether the lesson is accidental or on purpose.
Mentors should contrast the character they’re mentoring because this will help establish their yin/yang relationship. The mentor figure can have exaggerated characteristics to make him or her stand out (physical scars, mental or emotional hang-ups, phobias, etc.). Add contrasts to the mentor’s personality to give him more depth, such as the police captain who adores his kitten or the pro football player who dabbles in astrology. Warning: Be careful not to go overboard because you’ll risk creating a cartoon caricature if the character becomes too over-the-top.
Sidekicks: Like the ally, the sidekick is a friend, but a strong bond is created between the sidekick and the heroine prior to when the story starts because it was forged by a shared ordeal from their past. They could have fought in a war together, or struggled through high school as fellow nerds, or because of a shared tragedy have an equal desire to right wrongs. But the heroine should be top dog in the relationship because of her stronger personality and greater confidence. The hero or heroine is always the one who calls the shots.
Sidekicks, like mentors, can afford to be more colorful, more exaggerated, because they don’t carry the burden of moving the story forward as the main character does.
Sidekicks should be as thoroughly developed and motivated as the main character. Examples of duos that include a sidekick would be Batman and Robin, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and Sherlock Homes and Dr. Watson.
Secondary character dynamics
Though not essential, you can exaggerate the differences between the main and secondary characters by using contrasts like fat/thin, quiet/loud, light/dark, hostile/happy, passionate/cold, etc. The important thing is to set them apart in an obvious way so they're not competing for the reader's attention.
A novel is generally much richer when there are multiple connections between characters. Interwoven character relationships can create natural plot complications all on their own.
Note: Always remember to find the balance between your main and supporting characters and don’t confuse the story by overloading it with people.
I hope you find the character hierarchy helpful in the development of your novel. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask them in the comments.
©2011 Karen Duvall
Karen Duvall's new urban fantasy novel, KNIGHT'S CURSE (Harlequin Luna), was chosen as one of Publisher's Weekly's Top 10 romance picks for fall 2011. The sequel, DARKEST KNIGHT, will be released in March 2012.
A skilled knife fighter since the age of nine, Chalice knows what it's like to live life on the edge—precariously balanced between the dark and the light. But the time has come to choose. The evil sorcerer who kidnapped her over a decade ago requires her superhuman senses to steal a precious magical artifact...or she must suffer the consequences.
Desperate to break the curse that enslaves her, Chalice agrees. But it is only with the help of Aydin—her noble warrior-protector—that she will risk venturing beyond the veil to discover the origins of her power. Only for him will she dare to fully embrace her awesome talents. For a deadly duel is at hand, and Chalice alone will have to decide between freedom...and the love of her life.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
I love revisions.
Well, let me rephrase that. I love to analyze a novel-in-process, figure out what’s wrong with it, then tear it apart and fix it. I love that moment of discovery when I can see why a book isn’t working, and the moment of blinding clarity when I know how to fix it.
Sometimes, that requires a page 1 rewrite. Sometimes, merely revising one pivotal scene will make all the difference in the world. I might need to alter a key relationship (change the heroine’s boss into her father, to make a certain conflict more personal) or raise the stakes (she won’t just lose her job, she’ll trash her reputation in the industry).
Then there are those books that nothing will save.
I don’t often abandon a book. Yes, I have several half-finished books on my hard drive. Most of those aren’t abandoned; they’re merely “resting.” But a few books have been officially abandoned because they harbor fatal flaws no amount of revision can fix. It’s a tough decision, saying good-bye to an idea that once held such promise. But like pulling a bad tooth, it has to be done.
Here’s an example:
When I was writing regularly for Harlequin American, I got this idea, and it so tickled my funny bone that I had to write it. The premise involved a hero who was trying to quit smoking. I wrote up the proposal, it was approved (as in, money was sent), and then my editor gave me the bad news: “I don’t know what I was thinking, but we just can’t have a hero in the American line who smokes.”
There was absolutely no way to change the story; the hero’s smoking habit was integral to the plot. If I took it out, I would have no story. While I’m convinced the book would have worked on some level, it wasn’t going to work for American, and it just didn’t fit anywhere else.
Another book I abandoned was a “dark chick lit” book. The title was Mary Sunshine Must Die. My heroine was a not-so-nice person who set out to sabotage the career of Mary, the new girl in the office who appeared to be living a perfect, charmed life. During the course of the story, my heroine comes to realize her rival is not perfect after all, and she becomes Mary’s champion. It was a huge character arc.
The problem was, while a flawed heroine is okay, mine was simply too flawed. No one could stand her, and they weren’t going to stick with her over hundreds of pages to see her make the change. As I worked this book over and over, trying to fix it and still keep what made the book special for me, the chick lit market crashed. I had to abandon it.
It’s a heart-rending decision to let go of a story you love. But sometimes you must—for your own good.
Plots can be fixed. (Yes, I am teaching a class called Plot Fixer for FF&P next month!) But an unsympathetic main character or a premise that’s just not compelling, or doesn’t fit into the marketing niche you’re aiming for—those are often fatal flaws.
If you have been grinding away on the same book for years, if it’s been rejected twenty times, let it go. (Yes, there are famous success stories of books that collected zillions of rejections before becoming a huge bestseller; if you’ve written Jonathan Livingston Seagull or The Hunt for Red October, feel free to ignore me.)
Start something new! Sometimes, after you’ve written five or six books, you can go back to the one you left behind and see instantly what the problem is. Every so often I go back and look at abandoned projects. Usually, I feel no inclination to drag something out and try to fix it. The longer an abandoned project sits, the easier it is for me to see why no one liked it.
Only once did I revise an old book and sell it. One Stubborn Texan was rejected at least twice by Harlequin, in the early 1990s, but after ripping it apart and putting it back together, I eventually sold it to them a dozen years later.
I know it’s hard, but learn to let go of those old, shopworn stories. You’re a professional; your books are your product. The more you write, the less sentimental attachment you’ll have to any one story, and the easier it will be to make pragmatic decisions about where lies your best chance of publishing success.
(But, hey, anyone want to publish a heartwarming, sexy category romance with a hero who smokes?)
Plot Fixer, presented by Kara Lennox, runs from November 7, 2011 through December 4, 2011
Kara Lennox (a.k.a. Karen Leabo) has written more than 50 contemporary romance novels for Harlequin/Silhouette and Bantam Loveswept. Since her first novel was released in 1989, her books frequently appear on romance bestseller lists and have finaled in several romance industry contests including the National Readers' Choice Awards, the Holt Medallion competition, and the RITA. Her Harlequin American Romance PLAIN JANE'S PLAN won a Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice award.
Kara is a frequent speaker on a variety of topics at writers' conferences around the country. She also teaches many of her workshops as online classes. Currently she is working on a romantic suspense trilogy, "Project Justice," for Harlequin Superromance, to be published in 2011.
On a good day, Kara writes ten pages before lunch. Visit her online at her blog: http://karalennox.wordpress.com.