Monday, February 23, 2009

Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel with Hallie Ephron

Welcome to the How-to Author Interview Series!

February’s Featured How-to Author: HALLIE EPHRON!

This monthly series is your opportunity to dig deep and ask how-to authors your hot questions.

Post a comment today – and you may win:
  • A signed copy of WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL, How to Knock ‘em Dead with Style, by Hallie Ephron
  • A Lecture Packet from me, Margie Lawson
A big Thank You to Hallie Ephron for joining us today. She’ll drop by the Five Scribes blog several times to respond to posts.

As promised in the promo, Factoids and Funtoids about Hallie Ephron!


  • Author of the standalone psychological suspense novel, NEVER TELL A LIE
  • Writing teacher and author of WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL, nominated for Edgar and for Anthony awards
  • Author of 1001 BOOKS FOR EVERY MOOD
  • Award-winning Book Reviewer of crime fiction for the Boston Globe
  • Hallie lives near Boston in a house furnished with items she and her husband picked up at yard sales
Hallie’s parents were Hollywood screenwriters, all three of her sisters are published writers, and her daughter is a writer. Her website is

Starred Review in Publishers Weekly for NEVER TELL A LIE:

An innocent yard sale jump-starts this stunning stand-alone thriller from Ephron, author of Amnesia and four other mysteries written with Donald Davidoff under the name G.H. Ephron (and one of the Ephron writing sisters), as well as two nonfiction books.

Ivy and David Rose, happily married high school sweethearts, are trying to clear out the junk the previous owner left in their glorious Victorian in Brush Hills, Mass., before the birth of their first child. Among the bargain hunters is Melinda White, a high school classmate who's also pregnant. Considered an oddball in school, Melinda worries about “more bad luck” after nearly knocking over a large mirror. When Melinda disappears and no one can remember seeing her leave the sale, the evidence suggests the couple murdered her. Ephron doesn't miss a searing beat as she plunges the Roses into an abyss of suspicion. A surprise toward the end provides the perfect twist to this deliciously creepy tale of obsession.

Hallie Ephron Interview
By Margie Lawson

ML: In WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL, How to Knock ‘em Dead with Style, you provide thorough and logical steps outlining how to write a mystery. How closely did you follow your own advice when you wrote your psychological thriller, NEVER TELL A LIE?

HE: I confess, I disregarded all of my advice about staking out the plot, structuring the book in three acts, and so on. I just started with my premise, made a few sketchy notes, and started writing. The result was an ugly, three-year-long process. Having said that, I’m thrilled with the result. Which just goes to prove something, I’m not sure what.

For my new book I have a contract and a deadline, so my writing process is much more systematic and hopefully will be a lot faster.

ML: In the chapter on Writing Investigation: Clues, Red Herrings, and Misdirection, you share some pointers under the heading, Investigation: Observing and Interrogating. What do you caution mystery writers NOT to do?

HE: The biggest “don’t”: “Don’t spoon-feed the reader.” I hate over-narrated books where every little observation the detective makes is explained ad nauseum.

For example, suppose your sleuth notices white lines scarring a woman’s wrist--you don’t have to deliver the obvious news bulletin: she survived a suicide attempt. Your readers are smart. Let them do some of the work connecting the dots.

ML: In the Innocent Suspects' chapter, you listed thirteen devices to make innocent suspects look guilty. What are your top five?

HE: Here you go:

1. Has an obvious motive (e.g. had been blackmailed/jilted/cheated/etc. by the victim)

2. Stonewalls (says he can’t remember or refuses to answer questions)

3. Is overeager to answer questions (provides bushels of information that implicates others)

4. Disappears

5. My favorite: Displays contradictory behavior (e.g. a self-professed tea-totaller is seen drinking in a bar a few hours after the murder; or a gun control advocate has an NRA membership card in his wallet)

ML: Genre writers know they have to hook the reader with a dynamite opening. In mysteries, that killer opening is often a body drop. You recommend opening with a murder or an out-of-whack event that has a mystery element. What are some examples of out-of-whack events and what made them work well?

HE: My new book, NEVER TELL A LIE, opens with a brief news story about the disappearance of a pregnant woman who was last seen at a yard sale. Then, Chapter 1 dramatizes the yard sale where she was last seen, four days earlier. The reader knows that the woman is going to go inside that house and she’s not going to come out. So what might be a gentle suburban scene takes on a layer of tension and suspense. The woman’s disappearance is an out-of-whack event that derails my main character’s life at just the point when she and her husband seem to be the couple that “has everything.”

Here are examples of other openings I love because they throw the characters off balance:

- A baby is left on the steps of a church (Julia Spencer-Fleming, IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER)

- A detective is thrown from the sixth-floor window of a burning hotel (T. Jefferson Parker, THE FALLEN)

- A murder suspect greets her attorney: “Pleased to meet you, I’m your twin.” (Lisa Scottoline, MISTAKEN IDENTITY)

ML: Your chapter on Writing Action is power-packed. Could you share four ideas with our blog guests on how to make action passages spare, effective, and riveting?

HE: Verbs, verbs, verbs, verbs. Seriously. Make them active and pick them carefully to **show** the action you’re trying to depict. Hold the adverbs. And use internal dialogue and description only if you’re deliberately trying to slow down the action.

ML: In the chapter on Staking Out the Plot you identify several ways to plague your protagonist. Which are your favorites, and why?

HE: My favorite: raising the stakes. As the book barrels toward its conclusion, insert ticking clock. A deadline when something bad is going to happen. (In NEVER TELL A LIE, it’s childbirth.)

ML: Mystery writers rely on research for authenticity. What sources do you recommend for mystery writers to get forensics right?

HE: I rely on my local police to get the police procedure right. On general police procedure and crime-scene investigation and ballistics, I often ask Lee Lofland ( whose wonderful blog The Graveyard Shift is full of great information.

Lee Lofland wrote THE BOOK on police procedure (POLICE PROCEDURE AND INVESTIGATION). Also D. P. Lyle, MD ( answers any and all questions from mystery writers about medical forensics and has several books out there, including FORENSICS: A Guide for Writers (2008).

ML: Switching to a question about your time-line of writing your novels: How long does it typically take you to complete a first draft? How long do you spend on revision and what does your revision process entail?

HE: When I’m cookin’, it takes about six months to write a first draft, another six weeks or so to revise it and send it to my agent. She always has comments that need to be addressed, and we go back and forth -- add another six or eight weeks before it’s completely cooked.

ML: Hallie, Here’s a tough question. Were there times when you were writing NEVER TELL A LIE that you got stuck? If so – how did you move forward?

HE: More times than I can count…usually I knew what was “supposed” to happen next but couldn’t get the characters to go there. I’ve learned to listen when that happens. I never want my plot to “herd” my characters. I have lots of strategies that sometimes work and sometimes don’t:

- Brainstorm…try to imagine as many different things that could happen next instead of what I thought was going to happen next

- Revise the preceding 50 pages and see if that helps

- Mind map – make a diagram of my plot and see if that triggers ideas

- Give it to my writing group and beg their advice

But honestly, it’s when I’ve been trying and trying to move forward and then stop trying (take a shower, drive to Connecticut, swim, fry chicken…) that the Aha! comes to me and I know how to move forward.

ML: You love revising. What’s your favorite part about revising?

HE: For me revising involves both paring away (wherever I told the reader something they could have figured out or where I repeated myself) and adding (usually I need more inner dialogue, characterization, or a few more beats to stretch out a dramatic moment). My favorite part of revising is reading what I’ve written, and realizing that I’m close to being done.

ML: Here’s your final question. WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL was published four years ago. If you were writing it now, what would you add?

HE: That’s easy. I’d add a chapter on secrets. I wrote about clues and red herrings, but what I’ve come to realize is that secrets are what make a crime novel work. All the characters (victims, suspects, villains, even the sleuth) have them, and they lie (to others and to themselves) to cover them up. Clues and red herrings can feel mechanical, but secrets are integral to characterization. I give a workshop called “Plotting: The Secret is in the Secrets” and people have found it enormously helpful, both in creating a taut, compelling story and in addressing the problem of “the mushy middle.”

Hallie, I appreciate your expertise, your insights, and your candid responses. Thank you for being our guest today – and for taking the time to respond to blog questions and comments.

With your how-to book, WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL, and the how-to forensics books by Lee Lofland and D.P. Lyle, writers will have the power tools needed to write a page-turner.


Chime in! We’ll have two winners today!

1. A Lecture Packet from me, Margie Lawson

2. A signed copy of WRITING AND SELLING YOUR MYSTERY NOVEL, How to Knock ‘em Dead with Style.

Interesting that Hallie mentioned two of her authentic research sources because we rely on them too. Join us March 25, 2009 when Lee Lofland, author of Police Procedure & Investigation, will be our featured How-to Author. Then later in 2009 D.P. Lyle, M.D. will be our guest How-to Author as he answers questions about Forensics: A Guide for Writers (2008).

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Revision and the Art of Non-Attachment

I just finished the first draft of my thesis manuscript (can I get a woot?), and now I'm staring down the barrel of the revision process. A friend new to writing asked me about the process of crafting a novel, and when I got to the revision portion, I advised her to be okay with deleting anything. In trying to tighten prose, elevate tension, deepen characters, and strengthen plot, everything is up to the wonder that is Ctrl-x, said I to my friend.

"Oh," said she. "So it's like Buddhist non-attachment."


I'm no expert on Buddhism, and what I do know is likely a very feel-good, Westernized, New Age version of it. However, non-attachment is an idea that we can find in many different religions or philosophies, and it's particularly useful to us as writers. Catherine Coulter once gave a talk to my local RWA group, and she also recommended cutting mercilessly. Our words aren't all "pearls," as she called them. Be ready to cut our most precious pearls from the manuscript because, as beautiful as they may seem, they might be completely useless within the context of our stories.

When I told my friend to be prepared to Ctrl-x anything she's written, I referred to the copy-delete function within Microsoft Word. Ctrl-x will copy highlighted text to the clipboard and delete it from the document. The point is not to delete it altogether. Instead, Ctrl-x (delete) it from the manuscript and then Ctrl-v (paste) it into a dump file where you keep your excised pearls.

Your dump file can make the art of non-attachment much easier to master because you're detaching from those pearls on a temporary basis. If you delete a pearl from the manuscript and then realize after more revision that it really was necessary to your story, you can rescue it from your dump file and put it back where it belongs.

Meanwhile, the pearl that turned out not to be so dear after all will have a happy home in your dump file. You might realize later that the dump file is full of dreck, and you can delete it then. Or you might find a pearl that really belongs to another story. And then you might realize that the rescued pearl doesn't belong in that new story, either, so you Ctrl-x it once again.

The point is to give up our attachment to those words in our manuscripts. Detach from them and realize that their presence is not absolutely necessary. However, the ability to give up a word, a clever phrase, a meticulously crafted paragraph, or even an entire chapter is key to the revision process. Nothing is sacred, and attachment to words we wrote weeks or even months ago can hold back a story's potential.

As I ramp myself up for the start of revisions, I'm getting Zen with my bad self. Looking for ways to strengthen, sculpt, and trim my writing. Detaching my ego from pretty words. Delighting myself as the story underneath the dreck rises up and becomes an intricate setting for all my pearls.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Hi All,
The Sandy got flooded this year with entries--a historic 176!, and I hate to overwork our judges! I'm hoping that some of you out there who aren't already judging for me will consider it. I have 3 C/YA, 21 Romance, and 1 mainstream entries that still need homes.

I'm hoping to find experienced writers willing to donate their time and generate tons of good karma, by volunteering to help judge The Sandy.

Judging involves reading a maximum of 22 pages and filling out the score sheet with comments. Comments in the body of the submission are encouraged, but not required. I will be emailing the entries out in the next couple of days and they’re due back five weeks later, March 30, 2009.

We try very hard not to give out more than 7 entries (unless the judge offers to judge more) but if you only have time to judge a couple of entries, we’d still love to have your help! We’ll take any and all time you are willing to donate!

If you can make the time to judge for us, please email me with:

1)Name, 2) snail mail addy, 3) published/unpublished status and 4) categories willing to judge.

The categories remain: General adult fiction, Suspense/Thriller, Romance, YA/Childrens and Fantasy/Science Fiction

***You will get your reward in writers heaven!***

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

ELEMENTS RWA's Specialty Chapter 211

Welcome to Interview No. 2 of RWA®'s Specialty Chapter 211. Today I'm talking with Barbara Burnham, President of Elements. This talented group of authors focuses on writing nontraditional romance, keeping in mind that the genre is still relevant as it was when it first broke into the world of publishing.

D.B. Thanks for joining us here today, Barbara. Why don't we start off in generalities. Give us an overall picture of this specialty chapter?

B.B. Thanks for having me here to represent what I consider a groundbreaking group within RWA

Elements of RWA was established for writers, published and unpublished, who write fiction and/or romantic fiction, but don't necessarily follow the established guidelines. For example, in a contemporary romance, the focus is on the hero and heroine. And, I know in most cases, that the hero and heroine have to be introduced early on, especially if someone is writing a series romance. Elements is for those who don't necessarily follow that highly beaten path.

I think it is important to emphasize that Elements is not a group intent on changing the current status of romance, but more on promoting that there is more than one way to write a romance and still achieve the important "happily ever after." As stated on our website, the romance genre continues to evolve. Elements is part of that evolution.

D.B. You can say that again. Blink and the romance genre changes. When I think of Elements, I think of authors who write more mainstream, but incorporate more elements of romance in their novels. Is your membership made up of other genres as well?

B.B. Exactly. We have members from all genres. If I had to name a few, I would say mystery, fantasy, suspense and chick lit.

Okay, I think I need to go on a tangent here. I just finished a great book by Harlan Coben, Deal Breaker. If you went into a library -- well, at least my local library -- his book is shelved in mystery. Great. But, what I bet some people don't know is that there is a romance in this story. Okay, maybe more of a relationship (Myron is investigating the death of his ex-girlfriend's sister), but the relationship, which is romantic, isn't the primary focus of the story.

D.B. I think it's a rare book that doesn't cross genre lines. Thanks for the recommendation; I'll have to check out Mr. Coben's book. Tell us about your chapter's growth. How many members did Elements start with and how many members does it have as of February 2009?

B.B. Elements started with a small group of people, probably less than ten in 2006. Although I should point out that I think the group was around more informally for some time before the chapter was established. Today, Elements has 150 members strong.

D.B. Wow, that's some kind of growth in a relatively short time. What kind of members does Elements attract? Along this line, would someone who incorporates little or no romance benefit from membership?

B.B. I think the chapter attracts writers from all genres. We have members who write mystery, fantasy, as well as all of the romance genres.

In my opinion, you need to understand the basics of romance before you can experiment and say, "Hey, what if I do this?" You know, change things around, don't introduce the hero until chapter three or have more than one potential hero in a story.

And without a doubt, there are writers in our group who write strict romance as well as mainstream fiction with elements of romance within it. I have heard from members who are writing category romance, and you can't get any closer to strict romance than that.

D.B. Nope, you sure can't. I noticed some well known authors in your group. How active are they in the membership, and is there much interaction with the unpublished membership. e.g. critique groups, mentors, workshops?

B.B. Every author has their own level of participation, which is important to the balance of our chapter. Lois Winston, who is an award-winning author and an associate with Ashley Grayson Literary Agency will be conducting a workshop next month. John Foxjohn taught workshops last year and will do so again this year in April.

Many of the authors are there to answer questions and offer support to both published and unpublished members. Elements is very lucky to have a strong, diverse group of authors including Nancy Haddock, Allison Brennan, Sandy James and Jenny Gardiner.

One unique aspect of Elements is our critique groups. Because of the demand, we have two critique groups as well as one that is solely for fantasy writers.

Oh, and can I add, that we now have to American Title V finalists in our group?

D.B. You just did. ;) Congratulations to the Elements chapter and to your finalists. Sounds like you attract some very prominent members. How do you support/promote your published authors?

B.B. Right now, we have an author's spotlight on our homepage. The spotlight focuses on a different author each month and there is a link to an author interview as well as information on current and forthcoming publications. This month's focus is on Sandy James, whose first book, Turning Thirty-Twelve, will be out in a few days. I have been talking to Sandy about conducting a Q&A session with Elements' members and offering prizes along the way.

We are trying to expand what we can do for our authors.

D.B. I love the idea of an individual spotlight. And I look forward to Sandy's Q&A. The title alone is fascinating. Speaking of promotion, how much interest in the group has been expressed from agents and editors?

B.B. I think having one member who is part of a literary agency says a lot. However, we have yet to begin work on educating publishers about the group.

D.B. It's still a young chapter. With such a dynamic membership, though, there's bound to be innovative ideas underway. On a personal note, Barbara, why did you join Elements and how has it benefited your career?

B.B. I joined Elements almost two years ago, when I had finished the first draft of my first novel, To Err is Mimi. I realized that my story wasn't truly a romance, but there was a romantic subplot. And there definitely wasn't a happily ever after (although now there is). So, I really felt as if my story was different, not realizing that it truly wasn't different, but the story had more elements of romance than actually falling under the romance genre.

Being part of the Elements group has taught me that it is okay to be a bit different and it has given me the ability to write more freely than I did in the past.

D.B. Different is good. Creativity Coach Eric Maisel states writers need to stretch their creative process. Sounds like Elements is into doing workouts. I'll close by thanking you for the interview, Barbara, and ask what lies in store for this Special Interest Chapter. Do members meet at National, or do you plan functions outside the online entity?

B.B. In a few words, promotion, promotion and more promotion. Is there anything else? LOL. Actually Elements has a group of dedicated members who are establishing a chapter contest. The contest will be different from others in that its primary focus will be novels with strong romantic elements.

We had a small group meet for breakfast last year in San Francisco and we intend to expand on that this year in Washington, D.C.

D.B. Fantastic! I look forward to meeting many of you there.

B.B. Donnell, a huge thanks to you and Five Scribes for allowing me to speak about this awesome chapter.

D.B. It's always our pleasure. I've posted some of the Element chapter's authors' releases. Impressive group, wouldn't you agree? For further information about this gem of a chapter check out

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

San Diego State Conference Highlights

S-o-o, shockingly, I didn't glean a whole lot of new market news from the San Diego State Conference. There were fifty-some agents, editors, producers and other industry professionals in attendance. Most agreed that the recession has affected the publishing industry, but editors ARE still buying books, and the "cream" will rise to the top. We just have to be cream--grin.

Agents and editors are still looking and buying great, marketable books. There has been a recent slowdown as agents were waiting to submit to see which editors would survive any necessary layoffs, but they seem to be hopeful and think that life should settle down a bit now.

They did stress that author-involved publicity would be even more important than before and that, though, traditionally, they never spent much on promotions for new authors, that seems to have been one of the victims of budgetary pruning-not really surprising. So they're looking to the author to do even more than before--as much as he/she can.

The message was much the same . . . write a terrific book they can't put down, keep growing in your craft, and don't give up!

Oh, and I highly recommend a trip to the Del Mar Beach to spur the creativity and bring you peace, and to put life in perspective. Keep writing, everybody!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Premio Dardos Award!!

The Five Scribes have been awarded the Premio Dardos Award by the members of Seekerville!!

This award 'acknowledges the values that every Blogger displays in their effort to transmit cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values with each message they write.'

Awards like this have been created with the intention of promoting community among Bloggers. It's a way to show appreciation and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web."

Here are the rules:

1. Accept the award, post it on your blog together with the name of the person who granted it to you, along with his/her blog link.

2. Pass the award to (15) other blogs that you feel are worthy of this recognition. Remember to contact each of them to let them know they have been chosen as recipients.

Mary Connealy - Real Life Petticoat Ranch

Gardening After Five

Life with Missy

Cheryl Wyatt

Petticoats and Pistols

Just A Scrappin'

Capadia Designs

Kathy Bennett

Working Stiffs

Arm Chair Heroines

My Ivory Tower

Mama Writers

Novel Talk Blog

Guide to Literary Agents

Jessica Faust

Thank you ladies of Seekerville!!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Plot Drills

In last month’s interview by Margie Lawson, she spoke to James Scott Bell, author of Plot & Structure. Our readers might recall that P&S landed on each of our must-have how-to book lists.
I personally adore this book because of a suggestion that comes near the end. After we’ve learned everything Bell has to offer on crafting a compelling plot with a tight structure, he gives some insight on how to learn the plot and structure used by some of our favorite authors.

I’ll give you my own take on this fabulous exercise, along with an example. What I do is personalized since I read his instructions and then took forever to implement what I recalled of them (sadly, my copy has been inaccessible for about six months now). So if you want the Real Thing, go grab your copy of his book and look toward the last few chapters for plot drills.

The general instructions are this: Read a few books you know you want to learn from (for example, bestsellers or award-winners in your genre and even sub-genre). Pick several. When you’ve read a book once, pull out a stack of index cards and a pen. Go back through these books, one scene at a time, and record the pertinent information from that scene. Keep the cards in order, and once every few days or once a week, read through them. Over time, you’ll begin to assimilate the structure of successful books and will be able to create your own with less conscious effort.

So, what to put on these cards?

What do you record on each card? Use your own judgment as to what information is critical to your genre (its conventions and its formula). For example, a horror novel’s scene card needs to note the major action within that scene but also whether the scene accomplished a genre convention: Did it introduce the monster? Did it introduce or deepen the main character’s personal connection to the monster? Did it increase the stakes of the main conflict by killing off a character/driving one insane/sucking them all into an alternate hell-dimension? Did it include the first skirmish between main character and monster? Did it include a major confrontation that strikes a seeming death-blow to the main character? Did it globalize the stakes of the monster’s victory/defeat? Etc.

In a romance, you’ll need to note the external plot markers, but also tag the relationship markers: first meeting, first physical contact, first kiss, first overt symbolic declaration of love, first verbal declaration of love, etc.

Here are some sample scene cards from Lori Borrill’s Unleashed, which is a fabulous example of a tightly-crafted plot written into a very short space:

Scene 1 (Chapter 1)
Rick’s POV
Jessie and Rick have one-night stand, he to clear out a bad day after a worse year, she to celebrate making it big. She also is learning not to fall for every guy she sleeps with.
  • First sex scene
  • sets up back story for external goal&motivation
  • intro of Rick’s lost wife – romantic conflict

Scene 2 (Chapter 2)
Jessie’s POV
Reappearance of ex-husband who claims divorce was never finalized & he’s entitled to half of her hard-earned money.
  • Her external goal/motivation established
  • her external conflict established and given a name
  • more complete backstory

Scene 3 (Chapter 3)
Rick’s POV
Rick needs the computer in the trunk of his car, but Jessie’s ex stole the car. Jessie is now peripherally responsible for his immediate problems.
  • external goal/motivation set more firmly
  • external conflict established
  • romantic conflict enhanced

Scene 4 (Chapter 4)
Jessie’s POV
Jessie finds that ex stole things from her roomie and from her. Rick confronts her at her store and takes her into the station where he works.
  • external GMC enhanced for both
  • romantic conflict deepened with mistrust
  • sexual tension established with emotional complication on top of super hot memory of one-night stand.

As you can see, just dissecting the story's structure scene by scene reveals a lot of information about the plot. Reading the cards in one sitting, in quick succession, cements the concept of tight plotting and solid structure in your own genre.

Next time you read a successful novel, try creating a set of plot drill cards, and see what you learn from them. Then join me at the altar of James Scott Bell so we can shower him with offerings and devotion. ;)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Ever Controversial Prologue

I'm always thrilled when Renee Ryan stops by for a visit. Give this woman a craft topic and she's ready and able to discuss it. What's more, she makes so much sense. I'm particularly pleased that her February release THE MARSHAL TAKES A BRIDE is finally here. Today you're in luck because Renee will be drawing a name to give away an autographed copy to one lucky person who leaves a comment. Please welcome The Five Scribes' guest author, Renee Ryan.

Thanks to the Five Scribes for inviting me here today. I love discussing all things writing, especially the controversial. And let’s face it; prologues are right up there in the controversial category. Let me start by saying the only writing rule I ever adhere to is this one: There are no rules. In fact, for every hard and fast rule I’ve seen or heard, I’ve also witnessed a talented author break it beautifully and seamlessly. I could do an entire blog on the many examples that come to mind. But today I’m going to focus on the topic of prologues.

I recently sat in a workshop given by a very well-known author who categorically bashed prologues with a curled lip and vitriolic fervor. He basically said, “There is no reason, ever, to put a prologue in your story. He encouraged us to never write a prologue. Never, never, never.”

Well, I firmly disagree with this famous author. Case in point, I am writing a contracted novel in which my editor is requiring me to include a prologue. That’s right. My editor is insisting I add a prologue. With good reason. The entire story is contingent on a lone event that occurs a full month prior to the rest of the book. In order to make the story work, and not feel disjointed, this scene must be included in the opening of the novel as a prologue. Without it, I would have to add pages and pages of back story dump.

Now, let me state for the record, I hate back story dump, which brings me to my reasons for including a prologue in a book.

  1. To avoid back story dump. If the opening of your story is dependent on a prior event, and that event is filled with powerful action and emotion, then I say write the scene in real time. In other words, if you find yourself “telling” the specifics of a prior event, you might want to ask yourself, “Would this be more effective written in real time?” If the answer is yes, you need a prologue.

  1. To avoid a large jump in time between the first and second scene of a story. Whether an event occurs one month prior to the opening or twenty years in the past, if this event is important to the story, write it as a prologue.

  1. To provide motivation for a character’s actions in the opening of the story. Have you ever had someone say to you, “Your hero (or heroine) isn’t sympathetic?” Well, if a character is acting in a way that seems harsh, but he or she has a specific reason for acting this way, you could “show” the reason in a short prologue. And if this event is linked to the past, even better.

  1. To present a seemingly unrelated event that will have a huge impact on the external plot. This type of prologue is often seen in mysteries and thrillers. If an event, usually a murder, catapults the external plot but isn’t part of the hero and/or heroine’s main storyline, it’s often effective to present this scene as a prologue. It’s also a nice way to start off the story with live action rather than having to “explain” why this murder or event is important.

If you haven’t noticed already, let me point out something very important here. There is one noticeably similar thread to the four reasons I’ve presented for using a prologue. An event.

Basically, no matter which of the above four reasons you chose to write a prologue, that additional scene must be a specific event. It needs to have a direct impact on the external or internal plot and have a powerful emotional impact on the reader.

If you’re writing a prologue for any other reason than the four I mentioned above, if the prologue isn’t a live action “event”, I highly suggest you rethink it. But remember my only rule, there are no rules. If you want to write a prologue, go for it! Just try to have a solid reason for doing so.

Thanks again for having me here today. I’m a frequent visitor of this blog and always come away with a new insight. I consider it an honor to share my thoughts on prologues with all of you today.

Like I mentioned above, I’ll be giving away a free copy of my February release, THE MARSHAL TAKES A BRIDE. Although there’s no prologue in this book, two of my next four books do have action-packed, emotional prologues. Well, I think so anyway.

Renee Ryan writes for the Steeple Hill line Love Inspired Historical. Her fabulous editor is Melissa Endlich of Steeple Hill. Her first book in the Charity House series, The Marshall Takes a Bride is a February 2009 release. Her next book in the series, Hannah’s Beau, hits the shelves July 2009. For further information check out

Friday, February 6, 2009

Words of Wisdom

"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer." – Barbara Kingsolver

From CS Weekly;

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Coming Soon to Five Scribes: InkTip!

Coming Soon to the Five Scribes blog near you. An interview with Gato Scatena, VP of Marketing at InkTip!

This will coincide with the launching of their new website. I was given a sneak peek and it's great, easy to navigate and filled with information.

InkTip offers services for both the SCREENWRITER and INDUSTRY PROs; qualified producers, directors, agents, managers, and name actors! In other words, the very people we want to get our scripts in front of.

If you read my interview with Marilyn Atlas, she highly recommended InkTip's services for screenwriters.

So stay tuned, I'm hoping all this will happen in the next week or so.

Leslie Ann

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

RACE to Revise: Four Quick Steps from SPEW to Manuscript

One meets the most interesting people while coordinating contests. Pepperdine Professor Jody Brightman is a prime example. Check out her Storytracker method. I think she may be on to something. Note: Jody's the one with the rose.

RACE to Revise: Four Quick Steps from SPEW to Manuscript

by Jody Brightman

Do you have a finished manuscript? Are you like me, dreading the R-word: revision? Well, I worked out a way to RACE through the process. Yes, it’s an acronym: Read; Add; Cut; Edit. But it’s also good advice – speed through your rewrite. The book will be tighter, fresher – and out the door.

Once you’ve finished a complete draft, give yourself a pat on the back and take off a week or two. You’ve earned it. But while you’re dallying, block out a long weekend on your calendar. Stockpile editing tools: packs of sticky tabs in multiple colors, a notebook, pens and highlighters. Print out a blank Storytracker sheet. (I use an Excel spreadsheet I call the Storytracker to track scenes and character profiles. If you’d like to try it, email me at Of course, you can use index cards, yellow stickies, a whiteboard or anything else that works for you.

Now, print out your manuscript – and SHOW IT TO NO ONE. This is your closet draft. The one you’ll bury in a boot box behind your jeans and bridesmaids’ gowns. It’s not fit for critical readership by anyone but you, because only a mother loves a SPEW draft.

When the reading day finally arrives, turn off the TV, phone and Internet. Grab your book and tools and crawl into a comfy chair. It has just become a deconstruction zone.

R – READ Your MS

READ your entire manuscript, start to finish, with as few interruptions as possible. Be an active reader. Really enjoy your book while juggling a writing pen and a highlighter and sticking colored tabs on the pages.

· Every time the scene changes, note that in your Storytracker.

· Every time you introduce a character, note that in the Storytracker.

· Every time you see something, large or small, you want to change, put it in your notebook, including the page number.

· Every time your prose is riveting, put a “+” in the margin; when it’s slow, put a “—“.

· Every time you change POV, put a colored tab on the top of the page. I use red for the heroine; blue for the hero. Your choice.

· Every time you hit a plot point, put a colored tab on the side of the page. I use green for external plot and pink for romance, with red for “hot” scenes. I add a white, write-on tab for turning points.

When you’re done, your manuscript will be a rainbowed porcupine, but you will have accomplished two critical tasks. You’ll have a roadmap for your editorial next steps and you’ll know your book’s theme.

What is theme and why does anybody care? It’s what your book is about – in a nutshell. It’s the emotional core that unifies the book. Theme can usually be distilled into one or two words: vengeance, greed, betrayal, family, truth, self-esteem. Post your word on a sticky by the computer – it will be your North Star. During Step Three, when you start to cut, you’ll eliminate every bit of backstory or scenic business that is off-theme. Staying on theme is what keeps the reader enthralled.

A - ADD to Your MS

In a first draft, almost everybody leaves out some crucial bit of information that sets up a plot point. Look through your notebook and ADD passages for everything you omitted. Also, look at your colored tabs. Do you have (at least) three red, “hot scene” tabs on the side? If not, ADD a sizzler or two.

C – CUT and CHANGE Your MS

1. Now, comes the tougher part: CUT. You have a big, fat, beautiful book in desperate need of a colonic. Purge the waste.

· Make your first pass an easy one: search-and-destroy every “ly”. Those pesky, lazy adverbs are history. As they pop up, play a game with yourself to find a better verb for every adverb.

· Once you feel good about yourself for getting rid of lazy writing, browse the Storytracker and CUT every scene that didn’t move the action or wasn’t on theme.

· Kill every secondary character who didn’t either move the plot or add a critical dimension to a protagonist. Zap! It will feel wonderful!

· Pick up the book and scan for “minus” in the margins. CUT out or pare down all the dull passages. Snip! Snip!

· Finally, put your book on an adjective diet. Personally, I have a bad habit of kitchen-sinking my modifiers, so I try to CUT almost all the dangling modifier phrases and half the adjectives. A skinnier book is tighter, faster-to-read, and more satisfying for the reader. Let ‘er rip!

2. The C-Step has a second meaning: CHANGE. Scan the tabs at the top of the page. You may find you’ve stayed too long in one person’s head. Unless you’re writing in first-person, make sure you’ve got a reasonable mix of colored tabs. Would a scene work better from another perspective?

· Now, look at your side tabs. Are there too many white pages between plot points? Maybe you need to move a scene to build tension.

(A suggestion: set a deadline for Step Three. It’s easy to let your left brain take control of the book. Beware! It will suck out your book’s life like a vampire. Drive a stake through its rational soul by allowing it limited access to the heart of your story.)

E – EDIT Your MS

Still with me? We’re at the final step: EDIT. This is a copy-edit, what you were itching to do when we first started the process. Save it for last, because it’s both easy and a tempting time-waster. In this pass, you’ll fix whatever your autopilot habit is. (Mine is “but”. For others, it’s “then” and “now”.) Use Word, to search and amend. Spell check. Grammar check. And, read the book once more, preferably aloud. You’ll catch some glitches, I’m sure. Fix them quickly and deem the book “done”.

Congratulations! You have a finished manuscript.

Jody Brightman is a university professor and long-time columnist who turned to fiction last year. She has completed Timber Falls, a romantic mystery and is polishing Apollo Rising, a steamy contemporary romance.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Manuscript Word Count: It's not rocket science

As the Scribes finish up a few projects, we've been batting around the issue of the current trend of how the publishing industry counts words in a manuscript. Is it 250 words/page times number of standardized pages, or is it computer counted?

Agent, Kevan Lyon of the Dijkstra Agency uses the word count in Microsoft Word. She has not had editors express an opinion one way or another. So that's she scoop right from the . . . well, that's one agent's opinion--grin.

This is a really tough business to break into, but I suspect that sometimes we make it harder on ourselves than it needs to be. Sure there needs to be guidelines, but there seem to be a lot of people who are NOT agents or editors--swearing that the powers that be will throw out your work if you fail to use the exact 2 acceptable fonts or if you fail to calculate your word count correctly. I try not to feed into that "rule mongering" and just write the best damn book possible.

I'll bet you it's the VERY rare agent that would turn away a stellar story because the author use arial font and underestimated the word count by 2,000 words. Is my impatience and rebel nature showing? Gulp. Have you had an actual experience to the contray?

Monday, February 2, 2009

I'm picking up what you're putting down...

The other day Theresa or T of the Scribes called and asked me to listen to a scene she'd written. The character, she explained, was in his twenties, and she wanted to make sure the dialogue worked, e.g. sounded true for a person his age.

Ordinarily, I'd be honored to offer an opinion; I've been told I have a "good ear." But in this case, I hedged because as I listened it sounded fine -- to a person of my age group. Still, the day before I learned people in their twenties speak another language. And as far as I know, Rosetta Stone hasn't come up with an accurate translation.

You see, my son is in this twenty-something age mix and in his last semester of college! Woohoo! We talk mainly by text messaging, an occasional phone call, and then there's a sporadic e-mail. In this case I sent him a list of to-do items he needed to take care of thanks to the New Year and HIPPA laws. Call me crazy, I want him to have health insurance; he's 21 and thinks he's invincible. So what did I do? Lowered the maternal boom of course. My e-mail said, "You will fill out the paperwork NOW." When he didn't reply right away, I e-mailed back a threatening, "Dave? Dave?"

A little while later, he replied, "Mom, I'm picking up what you're putting down."

I stared at that line for some time, and although I thought I knew what it meant, almost 30 years separate my boy and me, so I decided to consult an expert. I called his sister -- age 24. Audie explained that "picking up what you're putting down," equates to, "I understand."

I told T about this conversation and she graciously let me off the hook. I mean, she should; she has four kids of her own -- one of whom is in her twenties and Alli who is pictured here doing a brilliant performance of not picking up what her mom is putting down ;).

I often ask my kids to read my work. One, they're so unlike my mother who loves everything I write. For the record, if your offspring won't tell you, no one will. What's more they're more worldly than me. In my book Walk Away Joe, I wrote my ex-con was stabbed. After my son recovered from fits of laughter, leaving me red-faced with embarrassment, Dave said, "Mom, it's 'shanked'. Who was I to argue with a man who can quote Shawshank Redemption?

When creating our characters, it's critical that we develop their back story. Even if we don't plan to make them a large part of the plot, our knowledge of their age, socioeconomic status and more will enable us to make them three dimensional. Authentic dialogue will tell the reader a whole lot more and be twice as effective, all without an information dump.

I'm glad T wasn't offended when I suggested she consult someone a couple years younger than me, particularly when she has resources upstairs or only a phone call away. Now when she submits she can be confident she has it right. I really wasn't picking up what she was putting down.