Monday, October 29, 2007

Book Review: MISSING WITNESS by Gordon Campbell

Her husband lies dead from bullets fired from her gun, she's under arrest, and the only other person who was there, her twelve-year old daughter, is hospitalized in a catatonic state and unable to provide testimony.

But the woman's father-in-law hires hard drinking, hard living, Dan Morgan, to defend her. Morgan is widely known as the best trial lawyer in Phoenix, and with his young protégée, Doug McKenzie (who has ties to the dead man's family) they set out to win the case.

Unless you're in the legal field, it's possible Missing Witness will start out slow for you. Sluggish in spots, and dripping with legalese, you may get frustrated waiting for the story to start, as I did. But don't give up. Your persistence will be rewarded.

Campbell provides us with a humanistic exposé on the legal system, showing the individual flaws and unstoppable egos; the desperation to succeed and the burden of responsibility toward clients. Not to mention the need to feed money into the coffers of their law firms which are filled with competitive, calculating, and sometimes, caring men and women.

With the kind of information only and insider can provide, Campbell (who is a practicing attorney), shows us the creative side of law--theater in the courtroom--and the planning that goes into it.

Missing Witness comes together in the end, and with the exception of one scene, it all makes sense and is indeed, a good tale.


It's all better with friends.

Breakout Premise - Part 5


What's a writer to do? It's all been done before. There are no new ideas. We've heard it over and over.

Maass has a few ideas of his own. Find a fresh angle, a unique perspective. Can you approach your story from an unusual viewpoint?

He also suggests two other methods to increase originality: ". . .(1) by doing the opposite of what we expect and (2) by combining two discrete story elements."

Readers love to be surprised. Going in an unexpected direction can capture us even before we know it. A main character filled with quirks (think "Monk") can give a wonderful twist to the standard detective fare.

And two rather common story lines, when combined, can raise a story above the norm. Sometimes called "high concept", Maass uses this example from a conference he attended where Rick Horgan spoke. A woman is recovering from cancer. A nice thought, but not something you want to read for 300 pages. But add the woman's dream of climbing Mount Rainer--now you've got something!

A fourth idea is to combine genres. One of my critique partners, Susan Lohrer, writes a terrific romantic comedy and fantasy that sticks with you. I'd love to see her combine those two elements. The hard part is that a novel in which genres are combined "needs to be built on a breakout scale as is, say, Diana Gabaldon's 1991 novel Outlander . . . with plot layers, high stakes and depth of character." Way easier said than done.

If your premise doesn't contain some originality, you may want to take another look at it and see what you can do to kick it up a notch.

It's all better with friends.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Showing vs. Telling

Imagine a blank movie screen in front of you. A voice says, "The man is angry." That's telling. And lazy. And you're not involved. The screen is still sort of blank.

So how does a novelist "show" anger? We use words, not pictures on a screen.

Aha! Exactly! We paint with words. Show the man is angry by describing him in more detail. Are his fists clenched? Is his face tight? Eyebrows drawn together? What are the nonverbal clues?

By painting a word picture, using strong verbs, your reader is engaged in the scene. They "see" the man is angry for themselves. You don't have to tell them.

Telling isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's just something you don't want to do a lot of.

When I'm reading a book, I'm much happier as a participant--smack in the middle of a scene and feeling its power. I'm seeing what's going on rather than being told what's going on. I'm also able to feel more. Make sense?

Showing isn't easy, but I have to say, it is more fun. I try and go through and find any place in my "movie" that has a voiceover. That's a spot where I'm telling something maybe I could be showing.

And then, I get out my word paints.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Breakout Premise - Part 4

Inherent Conflict

Donald Maass suggests one way to create conflict in your story is to place it somewhere that isn't safe. Generally, suburbs are considered comfortable, not conflicted. But a courtroom? A mountain cabin in the middle of a blizzard?

Like many of you, my prayers are settling over the people of California now as they battle fire. Have you put yourself in their shoes? Imagined their fear and pain and anger? Their faith? Talk about conflict.

Maass stresses: "If your place is lacking trouble, dig deeper. It is there. Your job is to bring it out. Drilling into deep wells of conflict is a fundamental step in constructing a breakout premise."

As a suspense novelist, you may think your reader should automatically feel the conflict because of the idea of your story. But remember, until you write it, it doesn't exist. Don't run from conflict. Create it.

It's all better with friends.

Next: Originality

Monday, October 22, 2007

Flexibility and Plotting

We woke up to a blanket of First Snow on Sunday morning. Before it stopped, we had about 7 1/2 inches. Golf courses will be packed tomorrow, and our temperatures will hit the mid-seventies by Wednesday. In the Colorado Rockies, spring teases us into summer, and fall teases us into winter.

You learn to be flexible.

As a reader, I'm flexible enough to read other genres--and enjoy them--but I tend to gravitate to suspense. Nothin' wrong with that. On the downside, I'm kind of a fickle fan. If an author disappoints me, it's hard to pick up another of their books--regardless of how many I've enjoyed in the past. KSF. (Kinda Sorta Flexible).

A new author, in any genre, is often one a friend has recommended. Even better is when I find an author new to me because of a review I agreed to write. I feel like I've mined a golden nugget. Flexibility. And let's face it, we can read a lot faster than our favorite authors can write. Flexibility means always having something in your TBR (To Be Read) pile. My private stash. {sigh}

But what about as a suspense novelist?

Do you stick to the plan or let the story take you somewhere different? How flexible are you? What about if it means trashing a lot of what you've written?

I confess--initially I go back to the KSF mode. I try to think of a way to keep at least some of what I have and incorporate the new direction.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Flexibility.

Suspense novelists need to plot--at least a little bit. You need to have a strong sense of the elements of your story, the plots points, and the ending. Some novelists plot in great detail (I think they would make fine engineers), and some not at all. (We'll talk more about the different "styles" of plotting later.)

But, once again--suspense novelists need to plot--at least a little bit. Colleen Coble plots three or four chapters ahead. She has the basics of her story in mind, but plotting more than that would ruin the fun.


It's all better with friends.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Breakout Premise - Part 3


On the surface, this concept seems pretty clear. Is the premise believable? Either it is, or it isn't.

But Maass throws that caring thing into the mix again. (emphasis mine) " . . . we are concerned about the outcome of the story because what is happening to the characters could happen to us."

The key is to find a balance between the ridiculous and the routinely obvious. A suspense novelist--or any novelist for that matter (including fantasy and science fiction), needs to start with something that could be real. But if it's too ordinary there's no excitement. Who cares about someone going to the grocery store? But, what if . . .?

Stephen King is a master of taking the ordinary and giving it a blow-your-socks-off twist. He captures us because we're sucked into something strange and provocative before we know it. After all, we were just going to the grocery store!

Maass closes out the section on plausibility with this: "A premise that is surprising yet credible is one that is far more likely to make us exclaim, 'I wish I had thought of that.'"

What about the book you're reading now, or the one you're writing? Are you intrigued--or are you bored? Do you believe that what is happening could happen to you? Would you care if it did?

It's all better with friends.

Next: Inherent Conflict

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Book Review: PLAGUE MAKER by Tim Downs

FBI counterterrorism agent, Nathan Donovan, has an encounter with fleas. Deadly fleas. Because of an NYPD partner who can't keep his mouth shut, the press gets the story, and that story leads to an even bigger one when an old man living in London calls Nathan with a tale of his own.

At first the FBI is skeptical, but since 9/11 they can't afford to ignore anything. To help with the investigation and corroboration of the information from the old man, they team Nathan Donovan up with Marcy Monroe, an expert in the psychology of terrorism--who also happens to be Donovan's ex-wife.

Downs gives us a well-researched and well-written ride in Plague Maker, tying together events from sixty years ago halfway around the world that culminate now off the docks of New York City on the fourth of July. He brings us well-rounded characters with strengths and weaknesses--and the opportunity to exploit both.

Oh yeah, and a deadline.

Recommended. Well worth your time.

It's all better with friends.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Definition of Discipline . . . Aargh!

From Merriam-Webster's (emphasis mine) discipline 1: Punishment 2: Instruction 3: a field of study 4: training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character 5a: control gained by enforcing obedience or order b: orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior.

My keyword when I wrote my goals for this year? Discipline. I want a keyword for next year that means the same thing, but doesn't include punishment in its definition. Any suggestions?

Some things I've learned about writing every day: I get better; uncertainty doesn't have a chance to settle in; it's easier to see where my story needs to go; when people ask if I've been writing, my answer doesn't require justification.

One reason I've learned recently why I stop writing every day: I'm in the middle of some intense learning curve. Did I mention I have a mentor? Colleen Coble. A little bit of learning doesn't seem to phase me. But an intense amount? It needs to flow into me and coalesce. Get that skimmy stuff on top that real hot chocolate gets. Then, I need to stir it up a bit, sip it slow, and digest it. And finally, it needs to seep out my pores and into real life application. I guess that's how you teach this old dog new tricks, but as long as chocolate is involved . . . love it!

I heard a business coach say one time that if he scheduled something on his daily calendar, it didn't guarantee it would get done, but odds were against it ever happening if he didn't. Whether you're an SOTP (seat-of-the-pants) writer, a detailed plotter--or something in between--plotting your day can at least make you feel you've accomplished something when it's over.

Today I found myself behind before I started. I'll have to rely on that old stand-by skill called prioritization if I'm to get to those rewrites. And I will.

After I find some chocolate.

It's all better with friends.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Breakout Premise - Part 2

With this post, we're continuing our look at Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.

Remember those three novels you chose? (Okay, I already know some of you cheated. You have eight. Or twelve. Or three hundred and seventeen. Whatever your count, you're still in the game, and this still applies.) Think about this from Maass: "Above and beyond the setting, characters and plot, these are probably novels that altered your way of seeing the world. If they did not actually change your opinions or beliefs, they at least showed you something about humanity (possibly divinity) you had not previously realized. They are about something. They present an outlook. They have a message."


Is there a strong message in the novel you're writing? In the one you're reading?

Roughly, here's the premise of Broken Bones (the manuscript I'm working on): Organ donation and the lack thereof, the money to buy them, the greed to sell them, and the people who get caught up in the game and lose. Of course, my two main players will hit rock bottom and climb back out with purpose--probably.

Call me a softie.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Character in Suspense

Jerome Stern writes in Making Shapely Fiction that even though tension underlies suspense through all of the tools you would suspect . . . pacing, plot, hints of hope and fears, "the center of real suspense is character. Readers have to be emotionally involved before they can suffer your character's disappointments . . .."

Donald Maass tells us in Writing the Breakout Novel "we cannot help but like people that we know very well, whatever their faults."

My mentor, multi-award winning romantic suspense author, Colleen Coble, takes the ideas of emotional involvement and knowing your main character a step further. She says a reader must be able to identify VERY CLOSELY with that person. A slight nuance in character development maybe, but an important concept to consider.

Think about it. A suspense novelist can create a protagonist a reader cares about because they feel they know her, but making her so identifiable almost anyone can imagine themselves in her shoes--that's truly transporting a reader using strong characterization.

It's all better with friends.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Breakout Premise - Part 1

Before I begin, I want to let you know how much encouragement your comments bring. Thank you.


I'm told that if you want to bump your craft up a level, there's no better book then Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.

So let's talk.

(Just so you know . . . I don't yet have the workbook, so we'll be reading through the book instead.)

The Breakout Premise - Part 1

What are your three all-time favorite novels? Maass says they're the dog-eared ones you've read over and over and can quote lines from. Make a list or pull them directly off your shelves. Mind you, only three. No more.


Between you and me, I thought I'd failed before I'd even begun. I don't have any novels I've read over and over. No time? Fear of disappointment? Pick one.

And lines? I can't remember the ending of the movie I saw last night, let alone a line from a novel I read years ago and didn't re-read. Sheesh. But I wanted to try and play. I wandered by my bookshelves, and if a book made me smile, I pulled it out. And had to make myself stop at three. Phew!

The next surprise was that although suspense is the genre that has given me the most satisfaction over the years (and wonderful sleepless nights), not one of the three books I chose is suspense. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells, A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.

Think about what your three choices have in common. It's more than genre or style. Maass says to "consider more the experience it gives you as a reader."

Complete transport into another world is probably one commonality each of your favorites share. A different time, a different place. You open the pages and you're no longer in this reality. A complete fictional world that whisks you in and holds you captive. Make sense?

What are your first three choices?

It's all better with friends.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Do All Information Dumps Stink?

Following on the trail of doing awesome research, the next obvious stop is the Information Dump--not to be confused with the Information Highway where one is actually moving forward.

An information dump is the place in your novel where you are compelled to share all you have learned. The story stops (uh-oh), your chest swells with pride, and you spill your newfound knowledge. Some might say "spew."

I've created one of the most glorious information dumps ever. Have you?

A medical foray for my manuscript resulted in intriguing, juicy information. Why in the world wouldn't it be of supreme interest for everyone? I mean . . . all cool things to know. Right? And I wasn't getting all "Tom Clancy"--going into detail about the instrumentation in a submarine. This was medicine! And besides, if Tom Clancy can do it . . .

Part of my problem is I've always loved learning about real things from reading fiction. Put a non-fiction textbook covering any topic in front of me and full-blown hives would soon be followed by a headache. But put a STORY in front of me, with real information thrown in, and I'm a sponge. Go figger. (This is why good research is important--readers like me rely on it.)

In the story I'm writing--Broken Bones--I wanted to use that intruiging, juicy information. So I had a totally boring character (set up as an expert on the topic) sitting with her legs crossed, doing the info dump. (Sounds like a dance, doesn't it?) Without a doubt, every reader everywhere would soak up my fabulous facts, and be forever grateful to me for putting these tidbits in front of them in such a compelling manner.


Suspense stories that are not moving forward for any reason begin to ferment. And rot. And stink. Pacing is crucial in suspense. Don't allow your story to stop. Ever.

The smell emanating from my pages became unbearable. I ended up not only cutting the scene, but also the character. Lively and Unique ended up replacing Boring. Way better.

Research (for your topic) and backstory (for your characters) require very similar handling. Most of it is for you--the suspense novelist--to know. The knowledge you ground yourself in will show through even when you're not forcing it.

Avoid backstory (I still struggle) and avoid information dumps (I still struggle) and you will have a stronger story.

Your readers will thank you.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Exactly How Important is Research?

You write fiction, right? So you have a certain creative license, right?

Ahem. . . .

Maybe the question should be: Exactly how important is respect for your readers?

I have a friend who I'll call Gun Guy. He's something of an expert having spent most of his adult life in law enforcement, hunting, private investigation, hunting, managing security operations for a large corporation, hunting, refining his skills at the shooting range, and oh yeah . . . hunting.

Gun Guy loves a good read. An otherwise decent detective novel gets used for target practice if the author messes up the weaponry. Sloppy and inaccurate details take him out of the story, and every writer knows that's one of the worst things you can do.

Do I blame Gun Guy for his passion? Not one iota. He's the perfect example of a reader I want to please. I both respect and fear his opinions.

Woe to the suspense novelist who doesn't do their research--even when 90% of what you learn never makes it into your manuscript.

The story I'm slaving over now involves a lot of medical issues. Medical? My background is mortgage banking and Mary Kay. I probably don't have a lot of medical knowledge in my internal database. Rather than make it all up, I've gone and found experts to help.

As a suspense novelist, you aren't looking for the perfect scenario. A perfect medical scene translates to b-o-r-i-n-g within the pages of a novel. Instead, you're looking for a plausible one. You don't want any reader--EVER--to toss your book against the wall (or shoot it full of holes) because you haven't respected them enough to investigate the facts.

Which brings me to the internet. What in the world did writers do before Google and other search engines? That said, I can't emphasize enough the importance of having a flesh and blood person off whose fabulous head you can bounce your newly acquired information.

In the end, you're right. Suspense novelists write fiction. Novels are supposed to entertain. But that doesn't mean we don't owe it to Gun Guys everywhere--and to the story--to make an attempt to get our background information accurate.

It's all better with friends.

Monday, October 1, 2007

What's the Difference Between Mystery and Suspense?

It's important to acknowledge that mystery is an essential element in every genre. If there are no secrets to uncover, why bother? If there aren't questions raised, why turn the page and read on? Whether you write romance, suspense, sci-fi, historical, or something else, your story must have an element of mystery.

At its simplest, a mystery is a puzzle. A crime has occurred (often offstage), and the protagonist must uncover the truth. Mysteries are intellectual games of whodunit. Clever plotting, fair clues, detective reasoning skills--all of these are important when a mystery novelist constructs the story.

A suspense novelist works with a threat and imminent danger that must be resolved rather than just a puzzle to be solved. Something is coming. Do you hear footsteps? Thunder? Breathing? The ticking bomb concept is very much a part of the suspense novelist's arsenal. A suspense novelist builds an emotional roller coaster and makes sure it collapses at the right time--with a bang.

The suspense protagonist is thrust into the role of Hero, often without preparation or skill. He or she would rather be safe at home, but something or someone has made it impossible for that to happen--usually putting the Hero's home and loved ones in mortal peril. The stakes are much higher in suspense; the intensity and threat upped to an almost impossible level.

And finally, a successful ending for a mystery is intellectually satisfying, while a successful ending for a suspense novel is emotionally satisfying.