Saturday, June 27, 2009

Writing into the Mist - Whatever Works

Award-winning Author Deb Stover makes no apologies for being an in-the-mist writer. Here on Five Scribes, we often talk of plotting, templates, and we certainly give our share to "How-to" Authors. For you pantsers, this one's for you. Thanks for joining us, Deb.

Writers are obsessed with plotting tools, toys, and techniques, as if these are the magic elixir that will spur them forth to publication and certain stardom. Speakers selling these "surefire" techniques look down their noses at those writers they call "pantsers." Those who don't adhere to outlines, plotting boards, fancy tools and toys are sometimes accused of "writing naked."

After all, what writer in their right mind would spurn a plotting technique claiming to simplify the novel writing process? Snake oil salesman often said they had certain cures and solutions to everything, too....

The first rule of writing fiction is simple. There are no rules.

Writing is a smorgasbord--take what you want and leave what you don't. The same holds true for critique--especially for critique. As my late husband, an engineer, always said, "Whatever works." And that means whatever works for you as a writer. It doesn't matter what works for Nora Roberts or Susan Elizabeth Phillips, if it makes you twitch or stare at the blinking cursor on a blank screen. All the spreadsheets, plotting boards, outlines, detailed synopses, brainstorming kits and tricks in the world aren't going to help if they send your muse screaming into the night.

Flying into the mist is a term coined by the brilliant Jo Beverley. Many writers have heard her mention it a time or two, either at conferences or on line. Her description works for the way I write, so I borrowed it for a recent workshop, and warned her in advance that I planned to blame her for the entire idea in case it wasn't well received. Seriously, all of Jo's books are perfect examples of how brilliant and successful flying into the mist can be.

We've all attended dozens of workshops about plotting, writing synopses, etcetera. For some writers it's as if someone turned on a light bulb when they discover the techniques involved with meticulous, tedious, detailed plotting. Fine. That's wonderful. I'm happy for them. In case you haven't figured it out by now, I'm not one of them.

I'm one of those who, early in my writing career, thought there was something wrong with me, because all these successful writers were trying to teach me another way to write. "I'm not doing it right," I told myself. Convinced that was why my first manuscript never sold, I set out to outline my second one and do it the "right" way."


That was pure torture. Something was missing. The book truly sucked. I worried and fretted, talked to other writers until a good friend--a multi-published author--asked me why my first book was fun and that one wasn't. Only then did I realize the simple answer. All the magic, the passion the adventure of storytelling was missing this time. Why was it missing? What was different? That was when my creative light bulb went off, and when I realized there really are no rules.

So I took my original idea, beause every story starts with an idea, a character, a situation--something--and sat down to write. Three months later, I had a completed manuscript to shop around. That one didn't sell either, but the third one did--also written my way.

Now I'm not saying I never write a synopsis first. I do--at least I do now. I didn't before that first sale when I had to write the complete anyway. Now I often sell on the synopsis then write the book. My editors--and my wonderful agent--have come to realize the finished project may only bear a minor resemblance to the original synopsis, but at least the characters and general premise are the same.

I never write scene-by-scene outlines. I don't know how to make a spreadsheet, and I don't want to know, thankyouverymuch. I do write character bios, interviews, horoscope charts, and even Tarot readings on occasion to help flesh out my characters. Those characters lead me on a merry chase, and the more multi-dimensional they are, the more twists and turns and depth the story will have. I do not dictate the direction those characters may take me. On the contrary--they lead and I follow. Sometimes I get revenge....

After all Romance is, first and foremost, character-driven fiction.

Some books require more research than others. Since I've written historicals, time-travels, and contemporaries, I've done a lot of it. I do some initial research to get a feel for the setting, but I never do all of it right up front for fear of letting it steal the magic of storytelling, and also to prevent me from writing any infodumps. If I reach a point in my story where I must have another fact, I use a dummy variable--always the same one so I won't miss it in a search--then go back to do the research later. Don't let details slow the flow when you're in a creative fever.

That's the beauty of writing into the mist. The characters and the story carry the author--and your reader--away on an adventure. It's exciting, mysterious, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Some of you are wondering where to start without an outline. Flying into the mist isn't for every writer, just as outlining and meticulous plotting aren't for me. Assuming you have an idea in the first place, then you should get to know your characters next. I always see one of both protagonists in a situation. In fact, I would say every story idea I've ever had has originated there, then blossomed from there.

Here is a simple exercise to test your skills at writing into the mist. Think about a character in your current project. Place your character on a dirt road--anywhere, anytime. There's a fork in the road. One fork disappears over a hill and the other down into the woods. Your character has to decide which fork to take, and you will discover what they will find when they do, and why they make that choice. Give yourself five minutes to write and see how your scene snowballs from there.

Writing into the mist isn't for the weak. It takes courage and believe in yourself and in the strength of your characters. If it doesn't work for you, then enjoy plotting boards and tools that do work. Whatever works....

This article ran first in Pikes Peak Romance Writers chapter newsletter. (Once upon a time, Deb Stover wanted to be Lois Lane, until she discovered Clark Kent is a fraud and there is no Superman. Since publication of SHADES OF ROSE in 1995, Stover has received dozens of awards for her cross-genre fiction, including ten Romantic Times nominations, and a 2005 Career Achievement Award. Her 12th full-length novel, THE GIFT, will be released by Dorchester Publishing in November 2009. For more information visit

Friday, June 26, 2009

Great News for Beginning Writers

re you at the beginning stages of your writing career? Do you feel like you've entered an elite club or started down a long dark tunnel of hype, misinformation or plain old lack of knowledge? In the words of Sir Francis Bacon, "Knowledge is Power." Put that power to work for you.

I'm pleased to promote the workshops that I wish I had access to when I began my writing career. Dianne Drake, author of more than 25 novels, including 72 foreign releases, and the author of 500 magazine articles, and Lois Winston, literary agent for Ashley Grayson Literary Agency, and an award-winning author of novels and novellas, have joined forces.

It's not an elite club or a long dark tunnel unless you allow it to be. I, along with numerous contest coordinators in RWA, rely on Dianne Drake and Lois Winston to help train contest judges. Whether you're a beginner or in need of a refresher course, these instructors know their stuff.

Get your writing career off on a solid foundation. Coming in September, 2009.

Crested Butte Writers Conference Agent/Editor Pet Peeves

One of the most popular, fun workshops at the Crested Butte Writers Conference was the First Page Cold Reads by agents Colleen Lindsay of Fineprint, Don Maass of Maass agency, editors Lisa Rector of Third Draft, Adam Wilson, MIRA and Kate Ninzel of Morrow/ Harper Collins.  

We all know that the publishing industry is incredibly finicky, but here are a few things that annoyed our agents and editors when they read the first pages of fiction books:

1)  Start with ACTION!
No thinking while standing, staring, waking up, in the shower, and no dreams.
No starting with long, elaborate descriptions of the weather (or ANY weather descriptions for Don Maass--unless you want to watch his head hit the table--repeatedly).
No passive voice.  
No first name-last name for Kate Nintzel.  Starting with Jane Dolittle lay on the concrete slab, would make her crazy
2) Make them care about the character immediately.  
3) Pull them into the story in the very first paragraph, with strong word choices, action and great dialogue so they have to keep turning pages!

But I must admit, after awhile it was a little fun to watch their agony.  And when we had a passive voice opening, with first/last name (in the first sentence) with long elaborate descriptions of the weather . . . evil grin here--I WOULD have written it and planted it in the pile to be read on purpose just to watch their reactions.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How- to Authors Dianna Love and Mary Buckham Break into Fiction

The Five Scribes are pleased to present Margie Lawson's How-to Author Interview Series with today's special How-to-Authors Dianna Love and Mary Buckham, authors of BREAK INTO FICTION.

Post a question or comment, and you have a chance to WIN:

  • Break Into Fiction -- by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love
  • Phantom in the Night -- by Sherrilyn Kenyon and Dianna Love
  • A Lecture Packet -- from Margie Lawson
Dianna and Mary will drop by the blog several times today. They'll respond to questions and comments posted by 7 p.m. Mountain time.

Factoids about Dianna Love and Mary Buckham:
  • NYT best-selling and Rita award-winning author (Love)
  • Authors of BREAK INTO FICTION: 11 Steps to Building a Story that Sells (Love/Buckham)
  • Award-winning suspense author (Buckham)
  • Former editor and contributing editor for NW Parent Magazine (Buckham)
Funtoids about Dianna Love and Mary Buckham:
  • Formerly climbed more than 100 ft. in air to paint murals (Love)
  • Collects ethnic textiles from around the world (Buckham)
  • Portrait artist and motorcycle rider (Love)
  • Climbed the pyramids of Giza (Buckham)
Their websites are:

Books Currently Available:

BREAK INTO FICTION :11 Steps to Building a Story that Sells -- nonfiction book on how to create a novel using YOUR story in the worksheets (Buckham and Love)
WHISPERED LIES - (Love) BAD Agency romantic thriller (Pocket/May 2009)
PHANTOM IN THE NIGHT - (Love) BAD Agency series (Pocket/May 2009)

Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner says about BREAK INTO FICTION :

"These writers know their business, and what's more, know how to explain it. Break into Fiction is solidly grounded in storytelling fundamentals but then goes much farther into the practical detail that determines whether your book will bring a check or a rejection slip. Altogether, it's one of the most useful writing books I've seen for a very long time -- Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story.

From the foreword of BREAK INTO FICTION by #1 NYT best seller Sherrilyn Kenyon (she is a panster - does not plot):

"What I love about the programs that Mary and Dianna teach nationally is that their intent is not to convert pansters to be plotters, but to give both types of writers tools for breaking through writer's block or finding a plot hole or shoring up a sagging middle."

Publisher Weekly on Phantom in the Night...

"All hell breaks loose in this over-the-top romantic thriller...Da Vinci Code-derivative components tweaked with a bioterrorism twist add extra punch."

How-to Author Interview Series -- offered by Margie Lawson

ML: BREAK INTO FICTION: 11 Steps to Building a Story that Sells came out this month. How did you two meet and what prompted you to write this book?

D.L.: Mary and I met at a conference where we'd been invited to speak on the same panel. We hit it off immediately and realized we both had an analytical approach to craft where we studied what made a book or movie successful and what did not work in stories. The Power Plotting program included in our new BREAK INTO FICTION book was a labor of love as much as anything else. As fairly new authors (I didn't start writing my first sentence until 2001), we understood how many tombs of reference books and hours of workshops it took just to get the basics down-- because we both had those walls of books and had attended hundreds of hours of workshops to develop our craft. We believed there was an easier way to learn how to create a novel...and there is. We taught private retreats nationally for the last several years, but our speaking and writing schedules have gotten too busy to do as many now so we decided the best solution would be to put the BREAK INTO FICTION Power Plotting program into a book.

M.B.: When you find another writer who challenges you to think bigger, work harder and dig deeper into the craft of writing, it's a dream come true. After we met, Dianna and I worked on not only analyzing other stories, but on challenging each other on our own stories and we realized not only how fun it was, but how liberating. We also realized that not every writer can find another to challenge them, so part of the premise behind the BREAK INTO FICTION book is to afford any writer, at any stage in their writing process, to look and think about their own stories in a fresh and different way.

M.L.: Will this book help all writers or only plotters?

D.L.: We've taught new writers, multi-published mass market writers and a Pulitzer Prize winner who were plotters and pantsers (writers who write by the seat of their pants). Plotters like to figure out the key elements in their story so they know they aren't going to run wild on rabbit paths while writing. Pantsers like to let the story reveal itself through stream-of-conscience writing and consider revising or rewriting a large amount of pages part of the process. BOTH are correct ways to write. Using our book, a plotter can figure out their key elements and twist points in advance to assure their characters and plot are arcing to a strong finish. Pansters answer the same questions in our book during their revision process to find weak spots or plot holes.

M.B.: One of the most exciting elements we discovered when teaching our live BREAK INTO FICTION plotting retreats was to see how writers could step away from narrow definitions of HOW to write a book and embrace a larger concept of understanding the structure behind commercial fiction. Doing this liberated them to know how to write their book and not worry about the process. Pantsers discovered a more efficient way of creating a strong story structure without feeling constrained or limited as well as having a tool to let them know if they've veered off track from their main story during the revision process. Plotters have a solid road map that they work step by step through their story in a systematic and consistent way.

M.L.: What are the most common mistakes you ran across in working with both published and unpublished [writers] in your Power Plotting retreats?

D.L.: We found it interesting that so many writers miss the same things in the early stages of creating their stories. The sagging middle is one, which is fixed by understanding twist points that is covered in our plotting worksheets. A big issue is the lack of rising stakes -- give the reader a good reason to worry about what happens next. At the root of so many of these craft problems is poor motivation -- the character is only reacting, as opposed to acting, or the character is performing an action because the "writer" needs that to happen at the point and hasn't set up a good reason for that action. These are all things that pull a reader off the ride once they are into the story -- the reader puts the book down. Another thing we found was terminology confusion. Mary and I listen to writers when we teach. We take their feedback and improve a program. While creating our current BREAK INTO FICTION book, we realized many writers hit speed bumps in the terminology alone. We created our own terms such as Internal Character Growth as opposed to Internal Goal for the character. A person doesn't get up in the morning and think, "I need to change and grow over the next week so that I can reconnect with the world." Not understanding the terminology creates problems for a writer, so we made it easier to answer questions about their characters and plot.

M.B.: One of the issues that kept surprising me is the comment from writers that thinking so intensely and focusing on their story was 'hard.' Learning any new craft skill initially is hard, so why shouldn't plotting your story prove challenging when you really dig into a deep understanding of plot? Great news is that the 'hard' phase dissipates, once you know what you need in plot and don't need, then the process of plotting becomes so much easier and fun too!

M.L.: Did developing BREAK INTO FICTION have any influence on how you write?

D.L.: My first book was a romantic suspense because I'm a huge suspense/thriller fan. While working on this program with Mary I came to understand the difference between writing a suspense and kicking up to a high-concept thriller. This resulted in my having the wonderful opportunity to co-write the BAD Agency romantic-thriller series with Sherrilyn Kenyon. I've just finished a mainstream thriller project as well. And I wish Mary could tell you about the amazing project she's close to taking out, but she's keeping this one under tight wraps for a good reason. It's high concept with unusual paranormal elements that is unlike anything I've seen out there. This is not vampires, werewolves or fairies and I see her series working very well as a movie or television series. But she could tell you how her writing is far different now than her earlier award-winning suspense novels. One of the great advantages I've found from developing BREAK INTO FICTION is having a more efficient way to pull together large, complex stories. This is the book we would have liked to have had when we started, but are glad to have in our hands now.

M.B.: As you teach so do you learn. That was one of the most amazing aspects of working with 10 or 15 or 20 some writers at a time in our intense BREAK INTO FICTION Plot Retreats. Seeing students get excited about their own work was inspirational. Dianna and I always try to build in some serious plot time on our own stories when we get together, whether it's before presenting at BEA [Book Expo of America where we presented by request from the folks at Writer's Digest] or giving a workshop somewhere around the country. Give us a few hours and we can hammer out not only a plot, but have a great time pushing one another to think bigger, think outside the box and step up our writing. Our biggest challenge has been to find the time to write given our travel and presentation schedules. Now that the BREAK INTO FICTION book is out, and writers have their own personal program in the book to learn from, we're working seriously to free up more FICTION FIRST time for each of us.

M.L: Visiting both your individual websites as well as the BREAK INTO FICTION website makes my head spin with all the workshops, presentations and touring you do. Do you have any tips for time management?

D.L.: Writers ask me all the time "How do you get so much done?" but they aren't always happy with the answer . I do whatever it takes to write. I write everywhere I go and give up recreational time/events to get my pages done. I do what it takes. I have never approached anything in business with a "clock" mentality. In other words, I don't tell myself I "deserve" every weekend and holiday off, especially if I have a deadline looming. I find holidays a great time to work because the phone doesn't ring as much and e-mails are quiet. I set a goal of getting a project completed by X date and treat that as carved in stone even though that date is generally several weeks before my actual deadline. This allows me room for the unexpected illness or family issue that might run me late. I do take time for my husband and family, but any day that is not specifically set aside for something special is a work day -- 7 days a week. I get up at 5 a.m., even on Sunday. If I'm not on track to hit my "early" deadline, I get up even earlier and work longer. Every person has to find the way to reach their writing goals if they want to have a career in writing. Better to get a plan before selling because you will need that discipline once you do sell.

M.B.: If there's a strong enough will, you will find a way. Given that as a starting
point, the following tips might be helpful.
  • Know that no one is given more time than you are. What you do with your time is your choice.
  • Find what you are willing to give up to devote more time to writing. TV? Computer surfing? Meetings? There's always some way to rearrange a schedule if you want to write bad enough.
  • Create an accountability person or group. Someone, or some people, who will not let you give excuses for why you didn't get your writing or revision or submission done. Give yourself the same permission to do what you need to do to write as you would a loved one, your best friend, your child.
  • Seek out and surround yourself with other writers who will get published or stay published, because they will accept nothing less. Learn from them!
  • Build in Fill the Well time, when you support your creativity by whatever makes you passionate.
  • Know that the road to being published, and staying published, is a process, not an end all or be all. Didn't get your pages written today? Learn what stopped you and start again tomorrow.
M.L: Recently you've had an amazing Event on your BREAK INTO FICTION website called The 5 for 5 Writer's Extravaganza. Can you share what that was and if you'll be doing it again?

D.L.: We wanted to offer a FREE tutorial program on our website -- with no passwords or sign in issues -- for writers where published authors of all levels shared their insights on Character, Conflict, Dialogue, Point of View and Plotting. We asked authors to choose 3 topics and share their thoughts then posted 5 author replies for 5 days. The response from both authors and visitors was incredible. I thoroughly enjoyed the information shared, and every writer I've spoken to who visited had something glowing to say about the event. It helps to read how authors from different genres (we had a wide selection of genres) approach their craft. Writers from all over the world gained new insights on writing, and an appreciation for how authors constantly give back to the writing community.

M.B.: I have to give Dianna all the credit for the concept behind the 5 for 5 Event, which was marvelous, not only for us, but for the more than 110,000 readers and writers that visited us that week. By having so many great writers at so many different stages of their careers from recently published to multi-published and NYT best selling authors each talking about the same craft aspects, it was an in-depth tutorial that was simply amazing. If one or two authors say the same thing, it's one thing, but when you have 25 authors bringing home the same points said in slightly different ways, it's mind-expanding. I can't wait for us to do it again!

M.L.: Can you tell writers what makes BREAK INTO FICTION different from other plotting books currently out in the market?

D.L.: Our book is about creating Character-Driven Plots that are compelling stories with strong characters. When I started writing I constantly heard a debate about writing Character-based stories vs. Plot-heavy stories. There is no debate -- you need both character and plot woven so tightly they become one. BREAK INTO FICTION is based on programs we teach nationally to all levels and all genres of fiction writers on how to build a Character-Driven Plot. We wouldn't have considered writing a craft book if not for the enormous demand for our program and the realization we could never teach everyone. Time and again, writers ask "can you tell me how to fix a sagging middle?" or "can you explain how to fix a motivation problem?" or "the rejection letter said my book wasn't big enough -- can you tell me how to make it bigger?" and so on. You don't just fix 'one' issue most of the time -- it's a matter of understanding what makes a powerful story. Writers who tackle a story alone who use our book feel like they now have the benefit of a critique partner. Critique groups are getting copies for everyone in their group so they can all grow as writers together and challenge each other using the questions from our worksheets. This book finally gives fiction writers a way to create and revise with confidence.

M.B.: One of the key areas that sets BREAK INTO FICTION apart is that it's designed to get a writer writing on THEIR story immediately. No reading through 200 or 300 pages of what you should do with no practical way to apply the concepts. We've had writers telling us that not only have they broken through on elements of a plot that have kept them blocked or stymied, but that in as little as a coffee break they have strengthened, improved and understood elements of their own stories that have been missing. We've seen writers take story concepts and turn them into strong stories with BREAK INTO FICTION template questions and we've seen so-so stories develop breadth and width into strong, compelling plots that are exciting. All by asking key questions of their story at key places in their plot. That's very exciting!

M.L.: I see where Dianna will be at ThrillerFest in July then you'll both be presenting workshops at RWA National Conference in Washington D.C. the next week. Can you tell us what you're presenting, and when, as well as any special activities you have planned?

D.L.: I'm attending my first ThrillerFest in New York the weekend of July 8-12th where I'll be on a panel discussing collaborations from 3-4 p.m. on Sat., July 11th then signing afterward. Mary, myself and Pocket Executive Editor Lauren McKenna will be presenting a panel workshop at RWA National the next week entitled, "Do You REALLY Know what a Bigger Book is?" from 2-3 p.m. on Fri. July 17th. Then Mary will give a workshop from 4-5 p.m., Sat. July 18th on Body Language: Writing Compelling Characters of Both Sexes. *We'll be giving away copies of BREAK INTO FICTION at all of our workshops.

M.B.: Dianna will also be signing at the RWA Literacy signing in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, July 15th, and for folks registered for the conference, you can attend the Pocket Spotlight to receive free copies of Whispered Lies and Phantom in the Night that Dianna will be signing. Dianna is also offering a SPECIAL RAFFLE just for those who have her sign any books (you can bring your copies from home) during the RWA Literacy event and/or the Pocket Spotlight. You'll get a raffle for every book signed that enters you in a drawing for one of several BAD Agency T-shirts, an embroidered BAD Agency tote bag and a black denim jacket with the Bad Moon Rising logo embroidered on the back and the small on the front (Bad Moon Rising is #1 NYT best seller Sherrilyn Kenyon's August hardback release). We both are also available from Wednesday to Saturday to sign copies of the BREAK INTO FICTION book, which will be available for sale at the Conference book room.

M.L.: Last question! Do you have any plans for a follow up book to BREAK INTO FICTION?

D.L.: We have other progress in the works and a huge interest from the educational systems across the country, but the next nonfiction book will have to come after our current fiction projects. Also, we like to vet our programs with writers. As I mentioned earlier -- we listen to writers. In listening, we also learn so that when we do put the program in a book, it's been tried and tested.

M.B.: Yes and no to another nonfiction project ;) We've created a daylong workshop designed to teach the elements necessary to think about and consider before you ever sit down to plot. Because of observing writers get stuck in their story or the key story elements. At some point we'll pull these concepts into our next nonfiction project, but for now our motto is FICTION FIRST.

*** Dianna and Mary are donating an autographed copy of BREAK INTO FICTION and a copy of Whispered Lies to be given away in a drawing of everyone who posts today.

We hope you enjoyed Margie's interview with Dianna Love and Mary Buckham. Join Five Scribes next month on July 25, 2009, when Margie Lawson's How-to-expert will be renowned editor, Chris Roerdon, author of DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY and DON'T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION.

Crested Butte Writers Conference 2009 Recap

Hi All,
So this was the BEST writers conference EVER--though I have to admit, a small part of my joy is due to the fact that I'm co-coordinator of it. I say a small part, because, volunteering at a conference gives one opportunities to make more friends and network more with the agents, editors and speakers, so I get to know them on more than just a professional level. I feel like much of the professional barriers are broken down and I've made new friends. Hmm . . . which could be a problem if I ever wanted to have an agent/editor relationship. I'd have to think about that. But meanwhile, I've got no worries.

I have to tell you, after reading Don Maass's wonderful books Writing The Breakout Novel and The Fire In Fiction, I was thoroughly intimidated to be around him and convinced that I was NEVER going to let him read ANYTHING I've ever written--even after I revise all 4 books using keys I've learned from his and Lisa Rector's workshops. Though there was some consolation when I realized I didn't want him for my agent. I can't have an agent who intimidates me.

It all started out horribly. I picked Don, Lisa (Don's wife--a sweetheart and a brilliant freelance editor and writing coach of her own company -Third Draft), and Colleen Lindsay (Fine Print Agent) up at the Gunnison airport. I drove the 30 minutes from Gunnison to Mt. Crested Butte, thankful that in the beginning, they did most of the talking amongst themselves.

Then they talked to me. At this time, I had a horrible headache and just
wanted to get them there without hitting any of the chipmunks that dashed across the road seemingly intent upon committing suicide under the tires of my Expedition. I'd answered a few simple questions Lisa was kind enough to ask, about myself and my children--unfortunately, in one of those questions, I revealed that I have a BSN--bachelor's of Science in Nursing. Four years of studying biology and nursing in depth, and when Don asked me exactly what altitude sickness was . . . I blanked.

I stuttered, and hemmed and hawed, and he persisted in clarifying his question--"no, the biology of it. It has something to do with the lower oxygen, right?" I agreed that it had something to do with the lower oxygen in the air, but exactly what that meant to the cells and lungs . . . I confessed I just couldn't remember. Then he asked if all the land was privately owned--and I said that I believed it was government owned. His eyebrows shot up and his tone was surprised, when he repeated "government owned?" making me feel that surely I'd said something very stupid.

I thought the land around Gunnison that we drove through was national forest land--like Rocky Mountain National Forest. Like Estes Park. Now come on, guys, help me out. Government and civics isn't my thing, but doesn't the government own National Parks? I wasn't certain, I told him he'd have to ask a local to be sure. Boy, did I feel stupid.

Then he asked which government agency oversaw it and made a suggestion. Thank GOD Lisa or Colleen chimed in with their opinions here, and then Don read a sign that said the Dept. of Agriculture. So by now all I want him to do is ignore me and never ask me another question. EVER. Which of course he does not.

We get to Crested Butte and Don keeps saying how "sweet" everything is--which for some reason I found his word choice oddly endearing and distracting. I don't know what I thought he'd say, cool, unique, charming--just not sweet. I point out the main street--Elk Ave., and tell them there is so much personality in the city; do they want to take a quick look on our way up to the mountain? Of course they do--after I pass my turn. So I swing into a parking lot to circle back--and Don helpfully tells me when I need to make a right on the street clearly marked Elk Ave.--like I didn't know that (I hadn't screwed up on the directions--just everything else that came out of my mouth!).

Oh--and did I mention that Don speaks very softly? So at least three times on the drive I had to say, "excuse me, or I'm sorry, I didn't hear?" So by now he thinks not only am I an idiot, I'm a deaf idiot! And damned if he didn't keep asking me questions that I couldn't answer--what mountain is that straight ahead? I don't know, but I tell him my hiking husband could identify them all for him--very helpful as John was home in Niwot watching the children. I wanted to bang my head until I achieved blessed unconsciousness!

And I still had the dinner with all the guest speakers, agents, editors, and Crested Butte Writers Board to "enjoy". Can you guess how I was looking forward to that? Needless to say, having many other people to talk to, I successfully avoid Don, Lisa, and Colleen during that dinner, so I could recoup some confidence.

To make a long story not so short . . . I had a grand time with the Maasses and others at dinner-- a different night-- and I faced my fear of Don Maass. I have to say, I was VERY proud of myself. I moderated and coordinated one of the most fun workshops--a first page cold reading of unpublished work by the agents and editors volunteered by attendees--and me.

I also wanted to make it a little more fun by planting four best-selling authors' first pages mixed in with the unpublished and challenged the agents and editors to identify them. They only guessed one. In fact, they guessed that two of our unpublished works were published! Those talented individuals got invitations to send their work from just about all five of the agents and editors on the panels. I was so happy for them!

Luckily, our agents and editors were quite impressed with our keynote speaker's first page--William Bernhardt gave me the opening of his Sept. '09 release, Capitol Offense. Overall, it was a terrific workshop. Don and Colleen--the least tactful of the group, were a bit harsh at times, but to give them their due . . . it's a VERY harsh industry. Harsh for them too. Though . . . I had enormous fun watching Don bang his head on the table when someone opened with the weather, passive voice, or ANY inaction. And Kate Nintzel's hot button was openings with first name, last name-which I would have planted on purpose, had I known, just to watch her groans of agony--evil grin.

But in general, when they failed to identify the published works, the group decided that Alice Hoffman's, The Story Sisters, David Baldacci's, First Family, and Stephenie Meyers, Breaking Dawn, were not those authors' finest openings. I helpfully confided to the room of 50-or so, that I was sorry I hadn't taken detailed notes of their opinions so I could have shared it with each bestseller. Then all of us agreed that those authors had acquired such a following that they could get away with a weak opening once in a while--we unpublished hoping to break in, cannot.

So I bravely put my own work in--two actually-- my Amazon semifinalist and the first draft of my new book I just wrote last week. Lisa Rector later teasingly accused me of stacking the deck, and I nodded in agreement. Damn right. What's the point of spending hundreds of hours a year working to help coordinate a conference if there aren't any perks?

Anyhow, guess which agent and editor I had read them? What did they say? No . . . I wasn't one mistaken for a published author, but . . .

if you want to know more stay tuned....

Friday, June 19, 2009

Digital Publishing and RWA

If you haven't heard, this past week has turned up quite a bit of drama across the board within the RWA and e-publishing ranks. When I received my RWR and read the president's monthly article, I mentioned to my husband that this was turning into a running joke - I can't recall when she hasn't invoked the pitfalls of e-publishing, and I had to laugh when I saw (halfway through her article) that she had done it again.

Full disclosure before I continue: Once upon a time (about ten years ago), I'd exhausted all publishing venues for my romance novel, having submitted it to every known publisher and agency in romance-dom. I was trying to consider my options when, a year after I had submitted a requested proposal, I received my final rejection letter that said the associate editor liked it but couldn't get approval from the editor, and thank you and better luck elsewhere. At the same time, a friend for whom I had a deep amount of respect signed on as an editor at an e-publisher and told me that I should submit to another editor interested in my sub-genre. I did. After a few months, the publisher offered me a contract. I accepted without realizing how RWA would eventually respond and where that would leave me in the organization. I don't regret giving the publisher my novel (it wasn't going anywhere but the trash bin anyway), but I do regret that I'm now in a weird in-between place in RWA. To be honest, it feels like punishment.

Suffice to say, the exchanges online, from the Twitter #rwafail to the e-mail lists and blog posts, have caught my interest because they apply to my situation if only vaguely. This week, seeing agent and bestselling author Dierdre Knight tackle Diane Pershing's latest RWR offering has brought up points I hadn't considered. Likewise, Pershing's response today has given me more food for thought.

What do I think RWA should do? I don't know. RWA is a monolith, and any movement is difficult with a group this diverse and large. However, I do think a large number of members (including me) are being disenfranchised. Those of us who leaped before realizing that PAN's doors would slam on us, as would the Golden Heart, receive the benefits of PRO membership and little else on a national level. Those who are continually selling books and making a nice profit from e-publishing, whether solely or in addition to print publishing, have lately had trouble submitting e-books to the Rita. The few who've qualified by RWA's standards receive the benefits of PAN membership, but what about the remainder?

So what is a good solution? What is to be gained by leaving RWA? What's to be gained by staying and working on change from within? What can RWA do to serve all of its members, regardless of their business decisions? And more so - should anything change within e-publishing and that business model to make those houses more acceptable to RWA's demands, or is RWA basing its standards on a failing business model? I see a lot of emotional response to the subject on both sides, but I haven't seen many responses that logically tackle the issue and bring the underlying problem into focus. Specifically, I'd like to know why e-published authors feel threatened by RWA's decisions, and I'd like to know why RWA's board members feel threatened by e-publishing. On the e-pub side, is it all about the recognition? On the board side, is it all about the money?

I know I don't need to remind Five Scribes visitors, but just in case - please keep comments professional and (if critical) constructive. Let's have a discussion without heat and vitriol and really ask ourselves what the root issues are and how we can address them, whether within or without RWA.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Writing PIs in Novels

Ever wish you had a Private Detective at your disposal? As a mystery writer, I do, and often. Today, The Five Scribes welcome Author Colleen Collins and her gumshoe Partner Shaun Kaufman, owners of Highlands Investigations They'd also like to introduce their blog, Guns, Gams and Gumshoes: Say hello to Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman.

D.B.: You've both had successful careers--in publishing and in the law. What about each drove you to take up full-time investigative work? And then let's turn that question. What about private investigating makes you want to go back to full-time novel writing and the practice of law?

C.C.: Approximately 5-1/2 years ago, one of the lines I was writing for Harlequin closed down, which left me wondering what steps to next take. At the same time, the law firm where Shaun was contracting as a legal researcher downsized that position. I'd always told Shaun he'd make a fantastic legal investigator, so I said, "Now's the time to open that legal investigations business," and within six months we were off and running. What makes me want to go back to full-time novel writing? Easy answer: I love writing. But even if I had the opportunity to write full time, I'd still keep a toe in investigations because I enjoy the work.

S.K.: What drove me to full-time investigative work is what Colleen said, plus my desire to go to the source of evidence after having worked with evidence in a legal and abstract manner for many years. What has made me want to go back to the practice of law? I'd rather be a lawyer than work for one.

D.B.: Talk about a typical day, a typical assignment. How do you divvy up your workload when you take on a case?

C.C.: We currently run two investigative businesses (Highlands Investigations, which specializes in legal investigations and other types of investigations, and Cheater Finders, which specializes in infidelity investigations). In the next month, we'll be opening a third investigative business that specializes in background checks. I'll let Shaun discuss our breakdown of work.

S.K.: In our legal investigative work with Highlands Investigations, I tend to be the field and front man with both clients and live interviews. With Cheater Finders, we're both "front men" depending on which of us first intakes the case. Our legal investigative work typically emphasizes evening work because that's when people are available to talk to us. With Cheater Finders, the work day can be any time over a 24/7 period.

D.B.: Who is your average client?

C.C.: With Cheater Finders, our average client is an individual who wants evidence that a significant other (typically a spouse) is being unfaithful. Funny but a true story: Our very first client at Cheater Finders was a rock star who wanted us to serve a restraining order on an old girlfriend.

S.K.: At Highlands Investigations, our average client is an attorney or a law firm.

D.B.: What is the most unusual job you've ever taken on?

C.C./S.K.: This whole business is unusual. But since you asked, one of the more unusual cases [is] when a wife called and asked if we could discover why her husband of many years was suddenly acting differently. After tracking his activities, we learned he was moonlighting as a male "call girl." Another unusual job was a dad who kidnapped his own daughter--the little girl was unharmed, but by the time we located her, she was 2,000 miles from home.

D.B.: Say I'm hiring you, can I pick up the phone and call, or would I come to your office? Would I pay you a retainer, and given that I'm a poor struggling writer, would you offer me a sliding scale;) ?

C.C./S.K.: We intake clients via the telephone, or sometimes initial business conversations are conducted via e-mail. We rarely have people come straight to our office, and only then if we personally know them. Yes, we require a retainer, and, yes, we work on a sliding scale with civilians. With attorneys, we have set fees, but even then we'll work a sliding scale, if necessary.

D.B.: Are your primary clients, individuals, corporations or law enforcement? Do you ever assist law enforcement in solving crimes?

C.C./S.K.: Our primary clients are 50/50 individuals and attorneys at this point. When we open our background check business, we expect more corporations. We've never assisted law enforcement, although there are cities where law enforcement is starting to work closely with PIs (there was a recent case in New York where a team of police and PIs, working together, solved a major crime in the garment district).

D.B.: Do you carry weapons? Why or why not?

C.C. : We have a stun gun (350,000 volts) that we used to carry under the driver's seat of our car, but we don't carry it anymore. Probably because we never used it, and after a while we started thinking, "Will this escalate a situation to unnecessary violence?" Saying that, I know a female PI in another state who always carries a gun, even to answer the front door of her own home. But then, she specializes in executive protection, so she's accustomed to resorting to flashing a gun in critical situations.

S.K.: Rarely, and why not is because we're more likely to hurt ourselves than to hurt anyone else. Also, one doesn't need a weapon if one is smart enough to avoid situations where a self-defense device is needed.

D.B.: Have you ever been asked to work undercover?

C.C./S.K.: We were hired to work undercover for a major retail chain who wanted us to investigate if one of their managers was misappropriating corporate property. Also, we often work undercover in infidelity investigations.

D.B.: In novels, investigative work is glamorized. What part of the job would you consider glamorous; what part is mundane?

C.C.: The part that 's "glamorous" to me is cracking the case. It's a rush to find that piece of evidence that solves a case. As far as what's mundane, I think surveillance. Sitting for hours, staring at a location, can be mind-numbing. One PI I know said she'd rather poke a stick in her eye than do surveillance--LOL!

S.K.: What's glamorous? If we define glamorous as intellectually compelling and physically taxing, I'd call infidelity investigations glamorous. At times, we also work in glamorous places (ski resorts, fine restaurants), and we get to use interesting equipment (covert cameras). Mundane work: record retrieval from courthouses and public offices.

D.B.: Would you tell us about what a writer can expect when taking your online workshops through Writing PIs in Novels?

C.C.: Beginning in June 2009, we're starting up classes again after not teaching for almost two years. This time, we're offering smaller, more topic-focused classes for writers wanting to learn about an investigative specialty, such as surveillance or finding missing persons or homicide investigations. We're calling the classes, "Quick Studies on the Shady Side: Tips and Techniques for Writers Developing Sleuths and Villains." For more info, go to:

Also, Shaun and I decided to publish a nonfiction book of our course material, which we're titling GUNS, GAMS, AND GUMSHOES. Our goal is to have it ready in spring/early summer 2010. Along these lines, we kicked off a blog GUNS, GAMS AND GUMSHOES that caters to mystery writers wanting to learn about investigative trends, read articles about writing sleuths, and ask questions about sleuths and investigative techniques/tools. That blog is up and we'd love your readers to drop by and comment.


D.B.: I'm looking forward to it. Besides online courses, I also know you do in-person workshops. I attended one a few years ago, which was put on by Pikes Peak Writers, Shaun did a fabulous job talking about defense attorneys. If anyone has a chance to see Shaun or Colleen speak, I recommend them highly.

Recently, you helped my friend Christina Herndon at the 3-day Coroner's Conference, where you presented "The Top 10 Reasons Why Coroners Make Killer Heroes/Heroines." Will you tell us how that presentation went?

C.C.: To be honest, we were worried our "Top 10..." (a la Letterman) list might be a bust (would coroners appreciate our dark humor?). I warned Chris that our presentation veered toward "squirrely" and she assured me squirrely was perfect for that audience. And I'm glad to say, it went over very well. So much so, one of the coroners wants to make a bumper sticker of one of our reasons. I've also heard the presentation might be posted on the Colorado Coroner's Association website.

D.B.: Oh, I hope they post it, and I'm so glad it went well. Chris and I wrote a skit together for Sisters in Crime, and it was about as squirrley as it could get, so I suspect your act on the road worked great. Back to doing in-person workshops, are you open to doing more? If so, how do people contact you, and how much notice would you need?

C.C.: We love doing workshops. People can contact us at If someone wants one of our already prepared workshops (check for a listing) we can do those with a few days notice. If someone is wishing for a customized talk/workshop, a few weeks notice is appreciated.

D.B.: (Question for Colleen). Are you writing fiction these days? What is your current project and release?

C.C.: I have two proposals ready to submit--one's a paranormal PI series, the other's what I call "Nick and Nora in the 21st Century" contemporary PI series proposal. They're in the submission phase, so no release dates.

D.B.: (Question for Shaun). Are you interested in fiction writing?

S.K.: Absolutely. (Note from C.C.:) Shaun's currently studying for the bar exam, studying 5-8 hours a day, so he actually laughed when I read him this question. Currently, his focus is on surviving the bar exam, which is why more of these questions were answered by me).

D.B.: Good luck, Shaun!! Finally, Five Scribe readers, many might not know this, but not only are Colleen and Shaun professional partners, they recently entered into a matrimonial relationship. How is that transition working so far?

C.C.: We've been together almost seven years, but making it official carries significance. We eloped, so we still haven't bought wedding rings, although we found a $24.95 gold-sprayed plastic band for Shaun right before we got married :) We laugh about it, but Shaun swears he'll keep it always.

S.K.: After you've sat outside a home at 4 a.m. holding a cup of cold coffee and wondering if some unfaithful person is going to come out of the building you're watching, it's easy to share everyday life with someone special.

D.B.: Congratulations and our best to you. Thank you for being with us to day to talk about your exciting new ventures.

C.C./S.K.: Thank you, Donnell! We'd like to offer several giveaways to your readers. For everyone who posts a comment or question, we'll toss their name into a virtual hat. Next week, we'll pick three names: two for a class of their choice from and one for Writing PIs in Novels T-shirt.

We're looking forward to readers comments and questions!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Interview With Michael Hauge

Dear Five Scribe Readers,

I was fortunate to interview Michael Hauge via telephone. He is a charming gentleman with a great laugh and what felt like a bottomless well of information.

Michael is also generously offering the choice of any of his books or single disc DVDs to the winner of the randomly chosen blog comment. See the end of this interview for details.

Michael's Bio: Story Consultant and Writers’ Coach MICHAEL HAUGE, author of Writing Screenplays That Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, works with writers and filmmakers on their screenplays, novels, movies and television projects. He has consulted on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Kirsten Dunst, Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network.

Please welcome Michael Hauge to Five Scribes.

LA: Michael, I’m so pleased you can be with us here today. It’s wonderful

MH: (Laughter) Let’s hope you feel that way when we’re done.

LA: I will and I’m completely sure Five Scribes readers will as well.

I enjoyed reading
Writing Screenplays that Sell (WSTS) I’m a fairly seasoned writer and if I can find nuggets of inspiration in a book, that book is a gem. Your book must be what, in its 28th printing?

MH: I think, actually it’s in its 33rd printing.

LA: Is there anything you’d add to or change in the book?

MH: Well, in terms of the essential principals, there’s only one. In the book I take a different approach to character arc and theme than I do on the DVD of
The Hero's 2 Journeys (with Christopher Vogler.) The inner journey is the same thing as character arc.

In WSTS, I said character arc doesn’t follow any prescribed structure because it’s inner and invisible, it just can occur wherever it occurs. That’s the only thing I said in the book which I now consider to be absolutely wrong. I think the character’s inner journey, the character arc, follows a very precise structure and it follows actually the exact same structure as the visible journey, the journey to achieve the outer motivation.

In fact, that’s going to be an essential part of what I’m talking about at the
lecture I’m giving in July that Colorado Romance Writers is hosting in Denver, as well as my seminars this year in Austin, Minneapolis, Connecticut and Los Angeles: how you unite the visible journey--the journey of accomplishment where the hero is going after a visible goal and crossing a visible finish line, with the inner journey of transformation--where the hero is overcoming some deep seated fear and finding the courage to really change in the course of the movie.

Those two are intertwined very closely, not just in the way they’re developed, but in the actual structure of the story. And I didn’t realize that when I wrote WSTS. Other than that, all the other writing principals are correct. I wouldn’t really change any of them. I’ve just gone on from there and expanded them.

That’s the first half of the answer.

The second half is, when it comes to the stuff on marketing your work, there’s quite a bit I would add. When I wrote the book WSTS, believe it or not, there was essentially no internet, there was no email, and there weren’t the multitude of resources that screenwriters and writers of any kind have access to that they do now. So I would add those resources (LA: which he has included in his book Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds!)

LA: In your WSTS book you suggest that ongoing education, taking classes, reading books, scripts, going to movies is very important. You also said it was equally if not more important to write every day, even if it was for 15 minutes. Wow. I always thought it was futile to write for only 15 minutes if I’ve been away from it writing for a period of time, even 2 days. How can you get back into your story in such a short period of time? What to expand on that?

MH: Why were you away from it for 2 days?

LA: Well… (I was speechless for a few seconds…not a good answer in sight…read on)…Ummmmmmmm…I was on vacation and needed a break?

MH: (laughter) You don’t need a break from writing. You need a break from work, a break from family or friends, but not writing.
What I’m saying is that regularity is the key to successful writing. That writing when the spirit moves you or a couple of hours every weekend is just not going to get the job done.

Let me give a little aside here, to explain my belief on writer’s block. It’s almost never something that happens at the computer. It happens somewhere else and prevents us from sitting down at the computer and really starting to put stuff down.

I don’t think there are very many instances of people sitting and staring at a blank screen not knowing what to write – at least not for any extended period of time. I think when we’re blocked, we’re not going to the screen (or the legal pad) in the first place.

So, if writing becomes as regular as having breakfast, or exercise, or going to work – if it’s mindless – then you don’t think about making the time to do it. That will get rid of 90% of anything that can create a block, because you’re not even thinking about it.

And if you have a limited amount of time, write 15 minutes every day. 15 minutes breaks the logjam and gets you going.

Now I have a question for you. Have you ever sat down to write for 15 minutes.

LA: No. I usually write much longer.

MH: So you’re just assuming you couldn’t get much done in 15 minutes.

LA: Correct. It sounds like an inordinately short time because I’ve always had a longer time in which to write.

MH: You already have a positive addiction to writing more than that…so this advice really doesn’t apply to you. But for people who would like to write and just feel like they don’t have any time, my contention is that you can always find 15 minutes a day, and get something done. And to anybody who is reading this interview and doesn’t believe it, try it for one week and if it doesn’t work, email me and we’ll take a look at what’s going on.

LA: On your website www., you allow people to download Chapter One of Selling Your Story In 60 Seconds. This is great selling tool, by the way, as once I read the chapter, I only wanted more.

There’s something that you mention in that chapter that totally blew me away – your cardinal rule for pitching. Want to elaborate?

MH: The cardinal rule of pitching is don’t try and tell your story.

LA: Like I said, that blows me away!

MH: That was the intention, to say something that at first glance sounds absurd.

LA: But…we’re always taught to tell the story.

MH: This is absolutely the number one mistake writers make in trying to get people to read their stuff. When you’re pitching for a short moment, either at a conference, on the phone, at a pitch fest, or even at a party, and somebody asks what your novel or script is about, writers often make the mistake of saying, “Well, it opens here and then it’s this and then this happens and this happens and this happens….” And pretty soon the potential buyer’s eyes are glazing over. Or you run out of time before you get to the middle of Act II, and the person doesn’t get the essence of your story – the thing that is going to persuade her to read the script.

So what you have to realize when you’re in a pitching situation is that your total and complete goal is only to get someone to read your work. Thus the idea is to convey the elements of the story/screenplay…the emotional elements that are going to make them want to read the full script. And if you can do that, you’ve accomplished your goal.

LA: Additionally in that 1st chapter you talk about using antecedents in your pitching. I’ve never thought of using antecedents in pitching my work.

MH: Yes, antecedents are hugely helpful in several ways.

An antecedent isn’t a movie that has the same plot, it’s a movie that’s in the same genre, or more specifically a movie that would be marketed in the same way to the same group of people. So it may not be an identical film. For instance, THE HANGOVER was just released, and is going to be a huge hit. But it wasn’t a totally unique story. It’s genre, tone and targeted demographic were the same as 40-YEAR OLD VIRGIN and WEDDING CRASHERS. They all are R-rated comedies involving immature men who don’t want to grow up emotionally, and who get themselves into hilarious situations as a result.

That means if you’re pitching your own Judd Apatow-type comedy, and you can say your movie is in the same arena as KNOCKED UP or THE HANGOVER, the people you’re pitching to immediately knows what kind of story it is. And since your antecedents were commercially successful, it means they’ll immediately start thinking that your script might be as well.

The same holds true if you have a smaller movie – let’s say a comedy that has rich characters or an ensemble feel – and you can say your script is in the same arena as JUNO or LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. Again, the plot may have nothing to do with teen pregnancy or a beauty pageant for a kid, but the marketing, the tone, the style, the kind of movie it is, is similar.

And this principle applies to the book world as well. Naming other successful romance novels or mysteries or thrillers or sci-fi epics as antecedents greatly increases the chances of getting your own manuscript read.

So when I lecture, I’ll ask the participants to name a couple movies or novels they could point to and say, “Because that story made money, mine will make money.”

Often times, the answer I hear is, “I can’t think of any.” Well, if you can’t think of any successful model for the novel or screenplay you’re writing, then how successful are your attempts to sell it likely to be?

Hollywood doesn’t produce movies they see as completely unique and original. They want to make movies that fill the slot and the mentality that’s been successful in the past. So, if you’re pitching a romantic comedy, a broad comedy, a suspense thriller, a big action movie or a family film, they’re apt to be more receptive because those are the kinds of movies they’re looking to make.

Again, the same holds true for publishing, though perhaps not to the same extent, since publishing a novel costs far less than producing a Hollywood movie. But believe me, the publishing houses are looking at the best seller lists to choose their fall lists in the same way that the studios look at the box office returns.

Antecedents are also helpful to me as a consultant. When I coach writers on their novels or scripts, if I know the books or movies that my clients see as similar to theirs, I can use them as models to address the specific story principals that apply, and to point out weaknesses in their scripts or manuscripts.

LA: As a writer, this excites me, because it gives me a new toehold, a new concept to try and use to sell my work. So I can use these concepts in my letters, in my phone calls and emails. That’s incredible.

MH: Absolutely use these ideas. These are really the things that will get your stuff read, and that’s the whole goal of your marketing. No movie ever got made, and no novel ever got published, unless a lot of people read it and said yes.

LA: There’s the old pitch concept of “X meets Y.” I didn’t ever really think it was a great way to present your story. What do you think?

MH: I agree with you. I wouldn’t include that phrase in your pitch. Once it was satirized in THE PLAYER, it had pretty much run its course as a way to pitch a project. But the idea underneath it is interesting in this way: I think novels and screenplays that sell always successfully combine familiarity and originality.

I think for any story you market to have a chance, it’s got to draw on situations, genres, themes and characters that we find familiar in some way. If we go to a big budget Sci-Fi movie, or if we read a romance novel, we know what to expect – and those familiar elements pull us into the story.

To look at it in another way, I recently coached someone on their mystery thriller script and told him, “Look, if you’re going to write a mystery thriller you have to understand what the conventions of that form are. There are certain things that have to happen in certain ways for this to work, because the audience expects that, and it’s one of the reasons they go to this kind of movie.”

On the other hand, if your story is so familiar that it’s one more cookie cutter version of a police procedural or a horror film or a what-have-you, it’s not going to work either. You have to take the form that’s familiar for the genre and then you’ve got to bring something new to the party. There has to be something about your story that makes the reader or the person you’re pitching to say, “Wow, I’ve never heard anything quite like this before.”

I think what “X meets Y” is getting at, is we’re taking something familiar and giving a unique twist to it. Or seeing a character we’re comfortable with in one genre and putting her into a different one. So the novel (and soon to be movie) The Lovely Bones takes a very familiar story type – a family coming to terms with tragedy – which we’ve seen or read in such widely different stories as Ordinary People and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Sleepless in Seattle. And it adds this twist: what if the story is being told by the young daughter who was murdered, and is now looking down on her family from Heaven? The result is a brilliant novel.

That original element is what gets producers and publishers excited… once they know you’re working in a familiar arena that has commercial potential.

LA: In the DVD you did with Christopher Vogler, The Hero's 2 Journeys, you say that you each approach crafting a story differently. Is that because he uses Archetypes and you don’t?

MH: Chris and I are friends from way back. I love his approach, love his book
The Writer’s Journey, and you know, he’s just a great guy. So I thought it would be fun for us to share the stage and I suggested we do a day where we each talk about our own approach to story structure and character arc.

His approach is modeled on the Joseph Campbell approach to myth and storytelling. That’s the door he enters to get into story. My approach is one I developed on my own by looking at lots and lots of movies and screenplays.

So I present a 6 stage structural approach, where Chris’ consists of a lot more stages, which are more fluid. And while Chris talks about a story beginning in the Ordinary World, I talk about the Setup – my term for the first 10% of a screenplay. It’s clear that down deep our approaches don’t contradict each other, they complement each other. We just have two different ways to get to the core principles of good storytelling.

So if you don’t like his way, or if you don’t like my way, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you find the tools and approaches that will help you get to a successful screenplay or novel.

On the DVD of the seminar, Chris and I also talk extensively about the inner journey – about how plot structure and character types contribute to the Hero’s growth and transformation. And then at the end we join each other on stage to apply our principals to an analysis of ERIN BROCKOVICH.

LA: I have one more question if you have another minute, and that’s about love stories.

MH: Putting a love story into your script or novel gives you a wonderful tool for developing character arc, because for a love story to work, the hero must transform in order to end up with the love interest.

Take a movie like ROCKY. The only way Rocky can end up with Adrian at the end of the movie is if he transforms through the process of facing Apollo Creed in the ring. Sylvester Stallone brilliantly understood this when he wrote the screenplay, which is really more about their love story than the boxing match. He didn’t want the film to just be two guys pounding each other in the ring. ROCKY is about the transformation of this palooka of a hero into somebody who finds his courage and dignity. And the way that comes out is through his relationship with Adrian.

LA: Love stories make the hero more vulnerable as well, because he/she has something emotional at stake.

MH: Absolutely. All love stories are going to make the hero emotionally vulnerable. It gives the hero one more thing that’s on the line, something precious and essential they can lose. They’ll lose it if they don’t find the courage to change emotionally the way they need to.

That’s really what a character arc is: going from living in fear to living in courage.

I talk about love stories in all of my one-day seminars, not just those for romance writers. I also cover all this on my DVD
Writing Romantic Comedies and Love Stories. Because these principles apply to any story that contains a romantic relationship, whether it’s a romantic comedy, romantic thriller or tragic love story.

LA: Now I understand (light bulb here!) why some romantic comedies just don’t work. Because they aren’t risking much and there is so little at stake.

MH: You’re absolutely right. For a love story to work we have to truly believe that these two people are each other’s destiny. And that if they don’t end up together at the end of the movie, the most precious thing in that person’s life will have been lost forever.

Which, by the way, is also a rule for ANY story, in any genre.

LA: Elaborate please.

MH: Okay, here’s an example: say you write about somebody who’s a multi-millionaire, and then your hero has some crisis at work. If he fails, what’s going to happen? He’ll just go back home to his millions and say, “Bummer. Better luck next time?” How emotionally involving is that?

We’ve got to feel like everything is one the line for the hero. He’s risking everything he has, everything he is, in order to achieve whatever goal we’re rooting for him to achieve.

The pithy version of this principle is that if the hero doesn’t care about winning the goal, then the audience won’t either.

LA: Tell us about your latest adventure…the Movie Magic Template you’ve created.

MH: I’ve created a template, available for free to anyone using the
Movie Magic Screenwriter 6 formatting program.

If the writer turns on this particular template while writing, it will tell her that she’s at such and such a point in the script, and will point out the principles and story elements she must be sure to apply. In a properly structured movie, certain things need to happen at certain points in the script. So this reveals those, and reminds you of them as you write.

The template is based on my six-stage approach to structure, and on my categories of primary characters, my love story principles, and my tools for eliciting maximum emotion through character arc and theme.

LA: Thank you Michael for sharing your time and wisdom.

You're coming to Denver Colorado July 11th for a one day seminar: STORY MASTERY, which ISN'T for screenwriters or romance writers only.

The Topics included are:
Primary Goal of the Story
The Power of desire, need, longing and destiny
The essential conflict all characters must face
Turning pot structure from a complicated concept into a simple powerful tool you
can easily apply to every story
The single key to creating character arc and theme
Creating unique, believable and fulfilling love stories
The unique rules of romantic comedy: fantasy, duality, deceit
Adapting your novel to film

So readers of Five Scribes, if you want to elevate your fiction writing to the highest possible level, this event is a must. And there are limited seats, so to find more information, click on Or to find out more about Michael’s lecture schedule throughout the country, go to

And please check out Michael's website, and sign up for his e-newsletter. You can order any of the products we've discussed here on his site as well.

REMEMBER, Michael has also generously offered the choice of either of his books, or any one of his single-disc DVDs, to the author of a randomly chosen blog comment. So make your comments soon to qualify.

~Leslie Ann