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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

When Writer's Block Becomes a Brick Wall

I'd like to welcome my good friend and an awesome writer, Pamela June Kimmell. I first became acquainted with Pam after her first book, The Mystery of David's Bridge, was released. I love the way she brings the characters to life, and I've been waiting eagerly for the sequel to see what wonderful adventures Bailey will have. You can read more about Pam at or visit her charming and entertaining blog at She is also an amazing artist who has some of her artwork and photography on display at her website. I always use her note cards for those special "Thank You's" all published authors must continually write.

First of all, thanks to my dear friend Trish Terrell for inviting me to write a guest blog here. There were so many things that came to mind to write about, I had difficulty narrowing it down but the “top of mind” thing was passing on my experience with long-term writers block. It wasn’t really “block” as much as “brick wall” in my case!

We all have experienced writers block in varying degrees. I got my worst case of it when I had to go through a year's worth of chemo, which seemed to wipe out all desire to write or be creative in ANY way. That was hard for me because I’m a writer and an artist yet I had no desire to do either of those - I just wanted to stay in bed. Strangely, it took me about three years before I finally crawled back into the saddle and gave it a whirl again, and it was my artwork which pulled me through.

I started a note card business with my oil paintings and drawings and began to become interested again in being creative. It felt good. It felt right. But still, writing was a problem for me. I’d started a mystery series for my publisher with the first book being published in 2006 to moderate success. I had people asking me when the second book would be out - nice feeling isn’t it?! I started the book then became ill. Every time I opened up the manuscript file I just couldn’t write. It was miserable! I was going to lose my audience - who would wait forever when there are so many great books out there?

A good friend of mine who is an exceptional watercolorist and writer sent me an email one day telling me she had decided to write a children’s book. She sent me a few of the poems from the book and they were just so adorable and I realized what FUN it would be to write for kids. I’ve always loved reading to kids and watching their expressions as they follow the story.

I decided to write some short stories, try them out on my next door neighbor’s two little boys, and even illustrate the stories with my own pen/ink/watercolor sketches. Know what? I had a blast writing them. Kids have wonderful imaginations and writing TO that imagination has been a totally fun journey for me. It also got me over my seemingly impenetrable writers block. It’s great to be back and I can hardly wait to have my book in print this Fall.

Next challenge…….finally finishing the second book of my mystery series, which began with The Mystery of David's Bridge. The message in my story here is DO NOT GIVE UP. It may take way longer than you ever thought it would - or it may be awesomely temporary - but writers block is not the towering wall we allow it to be sometimes!

Pamela June Kimmell, Writer and Artist
Author of “The Mystery of David’s Bridge”

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

So You Want to be a Writer...

People often ask me when I knew I wanted to be a writer. It was in 1968 when I won a poetry contest at school and I had to walk across the stage and accept my award – a book.

In 1968, I lived in a 3-bedroom home with two brothers, two sisters, my parents and a dog. We had one telephone that was permanently affixed to the kitchen wall, though in the 70’s we managed to get a long cord so we could actually talk in the hallway. We had one television set in the den and we got five channels if my brother held the rabbit ears just right. I still remember the thrill of watching The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, because it was in color.

We chased lightning bugs on summer evenings. It was a thrill when the ice cream truck turned down our street, ringing its bell. And an equal thrill when the mosquito truck came through, spewing its fog all over us. We were oblivious to the dangers of pesticides and SPF was a scientific term that we wouldn’t hear about for years to come.

So when I decided to become an author, I used my dad’s Remington typewriter that he’d had since college days. The ribbon could be used only once and when it reached the end of the spool, it had to be replaced. There was no correction. I used a special eraser to correct mistakes, which was time consuming and left smudges on the manuscript.

I bought one ream of paper at a time and painstakingly drew a thin pencil line one inch from the bottom of each sheet so I’d know when to stop typing. I learned if I typed too fast, the keys would jam in the typewriter and I’d have to stop and pull each one back down.

By 1970, my parents knew I was serious about my writing career and they bought me a portable Smith Corona. This was a huge step up. It came with a carrying case so I could type anywhere. It also used a ribbon with a correction band at the bottom, so I could simply backspace over typos.

I completed my first full-length manuscript with that typewriter in 1972. And for the next 39+ years, I would continue the process of writing, querying publishers and then agents when the publisher’s slush piles disappeared. The agents became the gatekeepers for the big New York publishers. Books were purchased in book stores and a few at the local drug store.

Research was done at the library; the Internet wouldn’t be available to the general public for more than twenty years, and wouldn’t go online until 1995.

In the 70’s, I wrote when my son was in his playpen, asleep beside me. He now has children of his own. In the early 80’s, I worked the midnight shift at AT&T and wrote during the day. By then, I’d purchased my first home computer—an Apple III—followed a few years later by a Compaq Portable (which weighed about 40 pounds).

In 1984, my first book was published. Far from being the suspense/thrillers I’d written for years, it was a computer how-to book. It was followed by three more computer books and for the next decade, I churned out teaching materials for a variety of software.

I lamented to my husband once about the struggle to get my suspense/thrillers published.

“You need to be patient,” he chided me. “You want everything to happen overnight.”

“Do you realize I’ve been writing suspense/thrillers for almost 30 years?” I asked. “How long is ‘overnight’ to you?”

It was 2002 before my first work of fiction was published. Since then five contemporary suspense and two historical adventure/suspense have been published. Next year, when my next suspense/thriller is released, it will be 40 years since that initial manuscript was finished.

I’d like to think I hung in there.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Juggling Plots, Characters, Publishers and Editors…Keeping it All Straight—by Elizabeth S. Craig

Today's guest blog is by Elizabeth Spann Craig. I first met Elizabeth through the Carolina Conspiracy several years ago. I have been very impressed with her meteoric rise in the publishing industry. Her latest book, Finger Lickin’ Dead, released just last week on June 7th, will be another winner. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011. I know you'll enjoy her post today. Please leave comments and visit Elizabeth's blog, also! You can follow her on Twitter at @elizabethscraig

Juggling Plots, Characters, Publishers and Editors…Keeping it All Straight
—by Elizabeth S. Craig

Currently, I’m working on two different series for two different editors for two different imprints of Penguin—Berkley Prime Crime and NAL.

I’ve also worked in the past for two entirely different publishers (Midnight Ink and Penguin’s Berkley Prime Crime) simultaneously.

Is it hard to keep everything straight and work with different publishers? I’d like to say no, but actually, it’s not easy sometimes.

If you’re about to find yourself in this situation, here are some tips you might want to keep in mind:

Although it’s tempting to compare and contrast your publishers, resist the urge. Comparing publishers is really an apples and oranges thing, unless you’re comparing two of the largest publishers. Publishers are working with different budgets, which means distribution and publicity efforts will be different. If you do compare and contrast your publishers, try not to say anything damaging about them. Publishing is really a very small community and I’ve seen industry gossip backfire on writers…better just to keep any negative thoughts private.

Different editors have different expectations for their writers. Knowing this going in can help prevent any writer insecurity. I’ve heard from some writers who were worried that their lack of personal contact with their editor meant that the editor didn’t enjoy working with them. I can honestly say that, of the three editors I’ve worked with, some really enjoy a more personal relationship with their writers and some would rather communicate with you through your agent. Some editors will ask for outlines for future books, others are happy to have you create without you sharing your plans for the next story. Everyone works differently.

Keeping it all straight:

Series bible—This is the best way to keep your stories straight. My series bible helps me keep track of character ages, traits, habits, hobbies; setting details; and any details of recurring subplots. I know a couple of writers who keep track of these things on an Excel sheet, but I use Word. I type out each character’s name, how old they are, where they live in the town, what they look like, where they’re originally from, etc. Although it doesn’t seem like it would be confusing to write one book, then another, I’ve accidentally had cross-series appearances by supporting characters before I found and deleted them. :)

Be creative on one series while revising the other. I’ve had deadlines at nearly the same time for the different series, but I have to recommend that you try not to be creative for more than one book at a time. So far I’ve been able to finish writing a draft for one series while doing the edits for the other series. Once I did try to do creative work for two series at once…then I quickly stopped. But then, I can’t really read two books at once, as a reader, either. My editors have also been very much aware that I’m working on more than one series and have checked with me in advance when setting deadlines. But if you’re at two different publishers, this is less likely to be the case.

Make sure you review your books before you speak to a book club. Those folks are really sharp, have just finished reading your book, and are prone to asking detailed questions. It’s not fun to suddenly start talking about a character in another series or a plot twist that happened in a different book! I have a detailed cheat sheet for each book. This is, basically, a long synopsis. Sometimes I can’t remember the ins and outs of all the plots (and mysteries can get convoluted with clues, red herrings, and alibis.) These cheat sheets are lifesavers.

Have you got any tips for keeping characters and series straight? Are you writing more than one book at a time? And…thanks for hosting me today, Trish!

Remember to pick up a copy of Elizabeth's latest book, Finger Lickin’ Dead, released on June 7th!She also blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011. Follow her on Twitter at @elizabethscraig

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Cat in the Hat

What does your choice of pet say about you? And what can the choice of pets say about the characters in books?

We're all familiar with pets as main characters. Lassie, Come Home is a classic example, as is Black Beauty. Both plots were centered around the animal. But animals can also play a major role in books as secondary characters, propelling a plot forward without focusing on the pet itself.

Robert B. Parker's series about Jesse Stone is a prime example of the richness an animal can bring to a main character. Jesse's contemplative moments would be more one-dimensional if he didn't have the beautiful but soulful golden retriever with him.

In Lonesome Dove, Gus has pet pigs, which conjures up an entirely different image. Yet both show their tender sides by the way they treat their animals. They also show a glimpse into the type of lover or husband each might be.

When I first began my writing career, I edited manuscripts part-time. The only manuscript I could not finish was one in which the main character, someone we should be identifying with and relating to, began abusing his dogs. The scenes were graphic and heart-wrenching. And in those moments, a door slammed shut inside me and I knew that no matter what this character might do in an attempt to redeem himself, he never would in my eyes. I returned the manuscript and advised the author to rethink how he wants the main character portrayed. Years later, I learned that publishers and agents had the same response, passing on the book because they knew readers would stop reading and never pick up the book again once the animal abuse began.

After I wrote Songbirds are Free, the manuscript went to advance readers for their input. Several readers commented that they could not connect with a soldier in the story. The soldier did everything he was supposed to do, but he simply didn't come alive for them. In the rewrite, I had a dog appear in the soldier's first scene. They had just attacked an Indian village and the dog, skinny, malnourished and confused, was wandering the smoldering village alone. The soldier gave her food and took her in, and the dog became his constant companion. That one act made the character come alive, providing the compassionate impression I'd sought to portray.

I auctioned off the role of a dog in The Banker's Greed, with the proceeds going to the Robeson County (North Carolina) Humane Society. The winner was a golden retriever. The type of dog fit in perfectly with the main character. He was outdoorsy, active, intelligent and fiercely protective. Had the winner been a Pomeranian, a Rottweiler or a Black and Tan Coonhound, it would have changed the image of the main character.

Pets go beyond dogs, of course. Many an evil character owned cats, which humanized the character and made them more three-dimensional, even if their role in the book was an antagonist. What type of cat tells even more: a hairless, a Persian, or an "alley cat" all conjure up different images. And the way the cat interacts with the owner is even more telling; whether they are accustomed to long grooming sessions or they are independent and resentful of human interaction.

What does it say about a character who keeps a python? Snapping turtles, pet alligators, or piranha?

Would that character have a different image if they owned something they could cuddle? Something you could imagine loving?

Yesterday I saw a woman kiss a parrot. It would never have occurred to me to do that. And yet she did without hesitation and the parrot bobbed its head and begged for another kiss.

The way pets react toward certain characters can be telling as well. A perfectly well-behaved cat who hisses and attempts to claw the main character's new boyfriend could be providing a glimpse into a dark side that we are yet to discover. A horse that shies away from him says the same thing.

But when we meet a down-and-out bum living on the streets, filthy, perhaps alcoholic or on drugs, it can also provide a glimmer of hope by showing his tender, special relationship with a dog or cat who simply adores him.

Which books have you read that were made more memorable because of a pet? How did it add to the storyline, and what image did it help to convey about a character?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Make a Wish - or Set a Goal?

Most of us do it consciously once a year: we set a New Year's resolution. It's generally something we want to happen to us during the year - lose weight, stop smoking, exercise more. But what we might not realize is we are constantly making mini-resolutions to ourselves in the form of wishes or goals. And as a writer, recognizing the signs of each can help us create truly multi-dimensional characters.

A wish is something the character wants to happen. It might be a dream of becoming a famous musician, a renowned painter, a globe-trotting actress. Perhaps Life didn't go exactly as that character would have wanted, and she's now stuck in a role for which she never planned or wanted: taking care of a houseful of children, putting her own hopes on hold to help her spouse achieve his, or health issues or money issues that derailed her.

A goal is also something the character wants to happen, but unlike a wish, a goal involves action from the character. The person wants to become a renowned painter, so she takes art classes, dedicates time to her craft, learns how, when and where to participate in art shows and gain public awareness of her talents. To be achievable, one major goal - of becoming a renowned painter - must be divided into smaller goals; achievements that continue her progress forward.

Characters are almost always ones of action. Let's face it, having a character sit and wish for something to happen doesn't make for great reading. She has to get out of her thoughts and do something.

Wishes are passive (waiting for something to happen) but goals are active (making something happen.)

But we can also use the passive wishes as underlying reasons for a character's actions. For example, suppose we have a beautiful and talented woman who dreamed of becoming a famous actress. She's been participating in community theatre, taking acting classes, and learning her craft. Now she meets a man who has money and power. She becomes part of his life - and flash forward twenty years. Now you might have a character who is frustrated. A trophy wife who feels her best years are behind her, Mrs. CEO or Mrs. General who lives totally through her husband's achievements but has none of her own.

Now you have a passive character who has a motive. A motive to strike out at the person who she believes derailed her career, perhaps even her entire life. A motive for murder. A motive for infidelity. A motive for a crime.

In writing, it isn't necessary for the author to paint the entire picture all at once. But the past can surface in small increments, unfolding as the plot unfolds, like a mosiac that forms shape as the reader continues turning those pages. In the end, we don't just have a character who plotted her husband's demise. We have a multi-dimensional character whose motives have unfolded in such a way that the reader feels some emotion for her: sadness, perhaps, maybe anger at her circumstances, perhaps even feel her frustration and urge to take control of a life that has been on auto-pilot.

It's that richness, that depth of character, that helps to propel a character forward. And the clever use of wishes versus goals makes all the difference.

Read p.m.terrell's latest suspense/thriller, The Banker's Greed, to see how characters who allowed Life to simply happen to them take control and change the course of events in their lives--and many others.