Friday, February 27, 2015

Mary Sue and You - How Much of Ourselves Do We Put in Our Novels?

by Janis Patterson

One of the more peculiar kinds of book is known somewhat disparagingly as the Mary Sue. Although it can occur in any genre, it seems most prevalent in romance and marginally less so in mystery and usually but not always is the offering of a beginning or very amateurish writer. The generally accepted definition of a Mary Sue book is that the protagonist is always just too perfect – too beautiful/handsome, too smart, too brave, too kind, too loveable, too adored by everyone they meet, too… everything. Obviously most of the time this is just a bit of wish fulfillment and self-projection by an unskilled author. Yes, there are professional authors who indulge in this fantasy trip, but thankfully they are rare.

On the other hand, some don’t believe a writer can create a believable character without putting a little of themselves into the mix. It is this touch of humanity that makes the character live. So when we are creating our characters, how much of yourself do you put into your people? I’ve asked this of a lot of writers and have gotten answers ranging from ‘nothing at all’ to ‘a passion for ripe olives’ to ‘she’s my Aunt Clarissa.’

I know that writers are all different, but I do believe that most writers tend to make their protagonist the same sex as themselves. While there are some who do write the opposite sex both beautifully and believably, doesn’t the basic denominator of sex itself color our writing? A well-crafted male character will have a different view of and reaction to the world than an equally well-crafted female character, no matter by which sex they are written. 

While I am neither, I have written 20 year old protagonists and 80 year old protagonists, but at the base of their character is the fact that they are women and that basic fact of femaleness does a great deal to shape them.

I’m not going to go into sex stereotypes, which is its own minefield, but say again that what and who we are has to influence the characters we create. As an experiment, we should take the skeletal description of a character – for example, a 35 year old widowed single mother of three who is a welder, who used to want to be a nun and who is allergic to peanuts – and then ask five or ten authors to flesh the character out by writing a couple of scenes. Other than those skeleton points, I wonder how much any of the characters created would resemble each other.

To offer up my own work, my main protagonists are human (as I am), are female (as I am), are Caucasian (as I am), are politically and socially conservative (as I am), are generally tall (as I am not but wish I were) and reasonably intelligent (as I hope I am). Other than that they run the gamut from demure 19th century librarian to arrogant and opinionated old lady to wildly courageous contemporary spy and, should they ever meet, would probably have nothing of substance to say to each other.

I’m not saying that every writer should have something of herself in her characters. Neither am I saying that no writer should ever put anything of herself in her characters. I am instead offering for thought that a part of ourselves does live in our characters, that it cannot help but do so. Our job as writers, though, is to keep Mary Sue at a distance and let our characters shine as themselves.



Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Ugly Truth

Here’s a dirty little confession: I get jealous sometimes.

I’ve been blessed with great writing friends. They cheer me on when I’m up and support me when I’m down, and I like to think I do the same for them as they struggle in this crazy profession of ours.

But every once in a while, when they experience greater success in their writing than I do, I get jealous.

This isn’t an easy admission. Jealousy is petty. It turns me into a small-minded, mean-spirited version of myself that I really don’t like. And it takes away from others’ success, even if it’s only in my mind.

My closest writing friends and I started at roughly the same place in our writing careers and we worked very hard. They’ve earned every little bit of their success. As have I.

Jealousy–in my case anyway–is like admitting that I believe I’m the better writer and really, should be more successful than they are. They should be jealous of me.

I know, I know. I told you it was a dirty little secret.

I couldn’t handle the feeling, so one day I told one of my friends how I felt.  Instead of recoiling in disgust, she just patted me on the knee. Then she shared her own stories of jealousy and we laughed at ourselves.

How do writing couples deal with this? What happens if one partner has more writing success than the other? Seems to me you need a strong, healthy relationship to deal with the monster together.

I deal with it by admitting it. Whenever I feel that spike of jealousy at a friend’s success, I tell them. Turns out the jealousy monster gets smaller when you shine the light on it. I’m still not proud of feeling jealous, but I am gaining self-knowledge, and maybe a little wisdom.

Here’s what I learned. Don’t let jealousy fester in the dark. Drag it out into the light and let it shrink from shame. Share your feelings with your friends and learn to laugh at yourself. And whatever you do, don’t belittle other writers in any kind of public forum. That only reflects poorly on you.

So… anyone else out there feel like confessing? How do you deal with the ugly feelings that jealousy engenders?

You can find Marcelle here: web | facebook | twitter


Monday, February 23, 2015

The Gay Georgian Underworld



My historicals are mainly set in the mid-eighteenth century, when the Georgian era was at its height. The era has always fascinated me, from the great country houses to the hovels in the city, and the way the people at that time lived.
And my, did they live. They loved, lusted and laughed, all without the hypocrisy and the manipulation of guilt that the Victorians were so good at. I fell in love with this era when I was nine years old and it’s the longest love affair of my life.
I’ve read the books, and my husband says I read more eighteenth-century magazines and newspapers than I do modern ones! I get some of my plots from them, so outlandish though they might seem, most are based on real-life cases.
But in one respect, the eighteenth century was as moralistic as the Victorians. Gay love, or, as it was called then, sodomy. It was punishable by death.
The crime was “sodomy,” or the act of anal sex. Strictly, this was between males and females, or males and males, but in practice, only males were prosecuted, and women weren’t, except as pimps or madams. It is based on Church law, but the offence was a criminal one, not a civil one, and subject to the direst penalties.
Gays were prosecuted throughout the century, from the spate of prosecutions in the 1720’s, possibly a cover for Jacobite activities, to the “Mother Clapp” prosecutions later in the century. And they were hanged for it (game is hung, men are hanged).
Although obvious gays, or rather bisexual in Lord Hervey’s case, existed, most were tolerated. Hervey had lovers, male and female, and he was an important member of the government in the 1740’s, an immensely clever man and a friend of Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Alexander Pope (who may himself have been gay). But that wasn’t a crime – sodomy was. Lady Mary said of him, “There are three sexes – men, women and Herveys.” So gays existed and were tolerated, even exalted in this era when men wore pink but carried a sword by their side.
I’ve created three gay characters so far, one an honourable, intelligent man who has suffered for his sexual orientation, one a coward, who made another person suffer. This last character was the first husband of Isobel, the heroine of “Seductive Secrets.” Isobel hasn’t been told the facts of life, she discovered them for herself. Her mother never encouraged her to talk, when it became obvious her marriage was going wrong, and she never told Isobel anything about sex when she went into marriage. So Isobel associates sex with pain and misery. Harry’s sin isn’t that he’s gay, it’s that he hasn’t the courage to face up to his responsibilities, and when he can’t ‘perform’ with Isobel, he blames her for the failure, not himself. In short, Harry is a coward. 
My latest gay character is in the Emperors of London series, and like Gervase, he's a twin. But Val and Darius are very different to Richard and Gervase. Their troubles won't be the same, either.  I haven't written their book yet, but I've sent in the proposal, and we shall see what happens!
I didn’t see why gay characters should be caricatures – either saints or the tooth-gratingly irritating “gay best friend” character, someone who has natural taste in interior design and making women laugh. Yes, I’ve known several gays. We all have. Some played up to the stereotype, others didn’t. So I wanted to make all my characters real. People, not archetypes, stereotypes or ciphers. I wanted to give the gay characters in my books permission to be bad as well as good. Just as long as they didn’t slot into a preformed character slot.
The collector of automata, Ken Rubin, has machines that perform in a variety of ways, all from the same penny. He has a huge collection of early bubblegum machines, all of which do ‘something’ before you get your gum. You can watch your penny chase down convoluted pipes, get your fortune read or try to hit a target. But you get your gum in the end. You can (and I did) spend hours studying them and marvelling at the ingenuity of the creators. I hope my characters are as diverse and unexpected as Ken’s machines, if not a bit more.
You don’t know what you’re getting when you put in your penny, but you always get your gum in the end.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Finding Your Bliss

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you
where there were only walls.” ~ Joseph Campbell



I’ve been trying to finish a light amateur sleuth mystery (yay! Finally a series to write!) but another story keeps nagging at me. It’s one I’ve picked up and put down about a dozen times; changed the focus; the motivation; everything except the central characters and the theme.

I’m not sure why that book keeps pulling me back. Maybe it comes from the idea that each one of us has something special to contribute—maybe work we feel compelled to do. By doing it, we feel fulfilled and enrich the world. Joseph Campbell talks about finding your own path (“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it's not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That's why it's your path.”). How do you find that path? Some refer to it as following your bliss. Others say, find your heart’s passion.

But is that passion the broader goal or a kernel that embodies it?

For many of us on this blog, our passion is writing. Taking intuitions, snippets, dreams and moments of pure fantasy imagination. Adding overheard conversations, glimpses of a vignette as we pass by. Grabbing that nebulous possibility, and shaping and turning into a polished story.

Is writing the passion we want to share with the world? Or is it a particular theme or story that we feel we have to tell to reach that bliss?

I really have no idea, so I keep putting one foot in front of the other and step by step find my path.

Right now, that path is strolling along with a snarky divorcee who's temporarily living on a tree farm... You might hear a bit more about her later.

But as much fun as the amateur sleuth is to write, that other story is still there, a siren song.

Even if we take the steps to become an author, maybe we chose a certain path because we fear the stories we want to write won’t sell. We love chic lit or romantic mysteries or literary stories where the characters rule and the words flow to a different rhythm, but we read online, hear from editors, agents, creative writing texts that D, all the above are passé. We’re tempted to follow trends rather than listen to the story inside us. I think most of us have cleared that hurdle, but the doubt is always there--should I have chosen a different path?

Overall, I'm happy with my path to "here." Sure, there have been highs and lows, joys and regrets. I'm happy our paths crossed, here on the blog, at Carina, conferences or any of the other places we've connected. I hope my passion for writing lives on and that I can share my joy and make a small corner of the worlds a better place.

And in the meanwhile, I think my other story is still growing—or growing up—quietly evolving in my subconscious. I have many books still to write.

But I suspect “that story” will one day be the one I have to tell.

What about you?

“As you go the way of life,

You will see a great chasm. Jump.

It is not as wide as you think.”

Joseph Campbell

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

I Didn't See That Coming!

I love writing plot twists. And I hate writing plot twists. That part of my writing process turns my brain into a pretzel. But to me, the temporary (let's hope!) insanity is worth it.

One of my favorite reasons for watching or reading thrillers, mysteries, suspense, and romantic suspense is the potential for surprises. To me, there’s nothing better than an unexpected twist. That's especially true when I'm trying to figure out a puzzle and it zigs where I thought it would zag. After years of watching television and movies and reading books that throw twists at me, it’s really hard to surprise me.

Which makes it that much more delicious when it happens. And it makes me wish I'd thought up that plot.

I have a list of some of the books and movies with the most notable plot twists and surprise endings. I won’t spoil the endings for you—but you can find spoilers on the internet if you must.

BOOKS:


  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

  • Atonement by Ian McEwan

  • Tell No One by Harlan Coben




MOVIES:


  • The Game

  • Identity

  • The Usual Suspects

  • Dead Again

  • Psycho

  • Primal Fear

  • Fight Club

  • Se7en

  • L.A. Confidential

  • The Sixth Sense

  • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back



I would love to hear which books or movies have surprised you. I’m always looking to be shocked.

Monday, February 16, 2015

How to Pull Off a Killer Blog Tour


I should preface this post by saying that I’m not a big fan of blog tours. I had some success with them early on, but less in recent years for two reasons: EVERYBODY does blog tours now, and I’m too lazy to do what it takes to pull off a killer tour.

 

The keyword in blog tours is “special.” As in:

 

A - Distinguished or different from what is ordinary or usual

 

B - Extraordinary; exceptional, as in amount or degree; especial

 

C - Being such in an exceptional degree; particularly valued

 

And special is the antithesis of what we typically see these days. There are more tours than ever, and they are getting longer than ever, the prizes are getting bigger than ever -- and readers are more bored than ever.

 

Why?

 

The point of a blog tour is to interest readers, to excite them, to stimulate them into buying our books. But routine is not interesting. Common is not exciting. Average is not stimulating.

 

Consider the average blog tour: seven to fourteen stops of predictable content: a review, blurb/excerpt, maybe an interview, and maybe a How I Came To Write Yet Another Book post.

 

This is a series of wasted opportunities! A blog tour needs to be an event. It has to be fun and engaging. Every single landing has to be different. Or at least it has to feel different. It has to feel new and novel. Here’s how you make that happen:

 

1 - Stop arranging blog tours for every book release. Pick one or two releases a year to be your “big” release and focus your promotion on those. Make these books a BIG event. Do not do two of these big books in a row. Remember, you have to keep the tour special.


 

2 -  Stop relying on prizes and giveaways to draw your audience. The focus of the tour is your book. You don’t want to bring in people only hoping to score a free Kindle. You want to attract the readers most likely to be genuinely interested in your book. That has to do with the quality and content of your posts, not the number of -- or price tag on -- the giveaways. The best “prizes” are those that will ideally lead to new readers trying out your work for the first time: namely free books from your backlist --  or unique themed gifts that tie in with this particular title. The first are good for new readers and the second are good for rewarding already devoted fans.

 

Keep in mind that a successful blog tour isn’t about the quantity of people who show up. It’s about the quality of the response to the tour. Fifty people who might really end up buying your book is way better than five hundred people who are only there in hopes of getting a trip to Hawaii.

 

3 - Stop scheduling your blog tours around review sites. Right now most blog tours rely heavily on review sites to host their posts. This is problematical for a number of reasons. First, it creates a potential conflict of interest. Reviewers have to be free to review books without restriction. At the same time, the point of a blog tour is to sell books. You see what I’m getting at? From a puzzled reader's perspective it can feel a bit like what you have theah is a fah-ail-yur to communicate.

 

It’s understandable that some authors or author representatives want a guarantee that they aren’t bringing a bunch of readers to a blog where the book is going to be reviewed unfavorably. But you can also see why on the reviewer’s end this might feel like coercion or even blackmail.

 

But the real problem with this arrangement is that a review -- while necessary and appreciated -- is not the  fresh, original, special content that we’re talking about. I mean it can be: sometimes a reviewer will fall in love with a book and write a rave review and grant you the equivalent of Book of the Month status, and that's fantastic. If it happens organically. That kind of heartfelt enthusiasm will be great for one blog stop. But basically, barring the outlier one and five stars, you're going to receive a series of largely similar reviews. Necessary and appreciated, yes, but probably not the incentive for drawing in that audience you’re looking for. Especially if you’ve scheduled a number of review sites in a row.

 

Remember, with a blog tour, you’re trying to drum up excitement and enthusiasm. Woohooo!!! You’re throwing a party at every stop along the way. And every stop is different. Relying on reviewers to bring the paper hats and whistles is like asking your BFF to help you host a party and then you skip out on all the work and show up as one of the guests.

 

4 - Start coming up with fresh and original content for your blog stops during the editing process. There’s no better time to think about angles for promotion than while you’re finishing up the book. Deleted scenes and character interviews are especially popular. Ask funny interview questions of side characters focusing on the main characters and their relationship. Interview the villain. Consider whether a particular scene was especially fun to write or especially difficult, analyze why, and write about it. Talk about the characters and the story, but dig a little deeper than usual. You don’t want to write a cookie cutter post. Avoid writing a coda for a book that most people haven’t read yet, but consider writing prequel scenes. Feel free to share artwork, playlists, or other sources of inspiration. Remember you are trying to amuse, entertain and interest both existing and potential readers.

 

And don’t be afraid to ask your readers what they’d like to see in your next blog tour.

 

5 - Keep the tour short. Three to five stops MAX. Remember the keyword is special. Rafflecopter nothwithstanding, the longer the tour goes on, the more readers fall away. By the end of a long tour you’ll feel like interest in the book is fading. It’s not -- interest in the tour is fading. Keep the tour short and lively. You want to end the tour while reader interest is at its peak.

 

6 - Scout out new and original sites to host your blog tour. Your fellow author blogs and social media streams are prime real estate, especially if you’re tapping real friends and especially if your real author friends are willing to come up with a post of their own. Interview each other -- cross promotion is great. Funny posts are great too. If you want to go full out, you could try organizing a friendly little author roast -- with yourself as the victim. Or get a fellow author’s characters to interview your characters. There are tons of possibilities.

 

Don’t repeat content. Don’t kid yourself into thinking cover art, blurbs and excerpts equal fresh, original, exclusive content. That stuff is already on your own website and the publisher and bookseller pages.

 

Don’t rant. Don’t rave. This isn’t the time to jump on a soapbox.

 

If you do want to utilize review sites, don’t be afraid of small, obscure or brand new sites.  But again, you have to bring the fresh and original content. You can’t leave that to anyone else. And regardless of how successful the tour is, mix it up next time around. Remember, every blog tour has to be special. So try not to repeat visit any one site more than once a year. That keeps it fresh and interesting for everybody.

 

Does all this sound like a lot of work? It is. And that’s why you don’t want to try to do it for every book release. But if you plan ahead, keep the tour short and lively, take the time and trouble to create exclusive and original content, and focus on reaching the readers most likely to give your work a try, you’ll actually have fun -- and you’ll sell more books.  

 

 

 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Superstitions and Characters


I don’t think of myself as superstitious, but with today’s date being Friday the 13th, it seemed like something to explore.
I’m sure most of us can recite at least a dozen or more common superstitions like Friday the 13th, black cats, and walking under a ladder (Seriously? I think that one doesn’t qualify because it’s kind of a no brainer). So I went in search for ones that were more esoteric (and new to me).
From www.Corsinet.com I found these 13 little gems:
  1. An acorn placed in the window will keep lightening out.

    Lightening Protection Acorn

  2. It’s bad luck to place a hat on a bed.

    Hat (NOT on the bed)

  3. Wearing a blue bead protects you from witches.

    Witch Protection Blue Bead

  4. Three butterflies together are a sign of good luck. 

    Three Good Luck Butterflies

  5. If you drop a comb while combing your hair, you will have bad luck (uh-oh, my hairstylist dropped three combs on Wednesday!)

    Comb NOT Dropped!

  6. Wear new clothes on Easter for good luck all year (Barbie doll optional!).

    Easter Dress (New!)

  7. It’s bad luck to cut your fingernails on Friday or Saturday (who knew?)

    Fingernails (NOT cut on Friday or Saturday)

  8. Ivy growing on your house protects the inhabitants from witchcraft and evil (I don’t think Ivy grows in Florida, does it?)

    Safe Ivy Covered House

  9. Don’t knit a pair of socks for your boyfriend or he’ll walk away from you (well yeah, given the way I would knit them, I could see why!)

    Boyfriend-Ending Socks

  10. A mirror should be covered during a thunderstorm because it attracts lightening (hmm, I wonder if the acorn in the window would trump the mirror?)

    Add Cover Before Storms

  11. If you use the same pencil to take a test that you used to study with, the pencil will remember the answers (how come I never knew this when I was going to school?

    Answer Pencil

  12. If you sing before seven, you’ll cry before eleven (jeez, is this a comment about my singing, or what?)

    Singing AFTER Seven!

  13. The person in the middle of a photo of three will be the first to die (guess I’ll make sure we have two or four people in all our future pictures!)
    Doomed Middle Penguin

So how can you use superstitions in a romantic suspense? Here are a few ideas:
  • Superstitions, especially quirky ones, can add more realism and characterization (complementary or at seeming odds with your character’s personality?) A very pragmatic character could have an odd superstitious quirk.
  • Use to foreshadow. If a character habitually says or completes a ritual but his or her normal routine is disrupted, this can cue the reader that something bad is going to happen. Play it up to a specific outcome—like normally telling someone not to get caught and then that person is caught, or not reminding someone to drive safely and there is an accident…
  • Use a superstition that foretells death, like dropping an umbrella on the floor means there will be a murder in the house. Even if your readers aren’t aware of this, one of your characters could make that observation (to the amusement and or irritation of the investigators).
  • Superstitions can inspire story or plot ideas. Just reading through the list of superstitions gave me ideas for my Steampunk series!
  • Think long-term in a book series. Plant little superstitions throughout the series arc building to a final incident that ties them all together (would work very well in a paranormal, futuristic or science fiction) (Steampunk of course!)

    Steampunk Dirigible

Well, there you are, some positive ways to use superstitions on this Friday the 13th. And here is my favorite picture: a black cat, a ladder, and books!

Cats and Books!