Monday, November 22, 2010

Advice On Story Openings

With the Deadline for the Sandy rapidly approaching, I thought I'd remind our wonderful writers of the elements of great openings. Novel openings are tough to get right. No denying it. They are often challenging, subjective, and critical. But crafting compelling openings can be learned.

I always tell beginning writers openings must do three things. 1) Introduce the main character, 2) Show us what she wants (goal), 3) Why she can’t have it (conflict). And in most cases this can be (should be) achieved in the first couple of pages. You do that and you’ve got a solid start.

Here are some tips of what make or break story openings. Subjectivity is an undeniable dominating element in this business and rules definitely can be broken (if one is skilled enough to do it v-er-y well), however dynamic openings are pretty unanimously recognized—just as problem openings are.

And one thing to always keep in mind, is your reader’s expectation. What do readers of the genre you’re writing in expect in your opening? If it’s a mystery, it’s a dead body in chapter one. If it’s a romance, the reader wants boy and girl to meet fairly quickly. If it’s a historical, the reader wants to be immersed in accurate setting, dialogue, and facts immediately—and stay immersed. If it’s a fantasy, magic must be present. And so on.

Effective/compelling openings:

1) Start with action. Avoid starting your book at the beginning, start when something is already happening. Keep in mind that the action MUST have context and be grounded with a character we care about, otherwise the reader is thinking why the hell do I care about this?

2) Offer a sympathetic character. We need to care—or at least be interested in or curious about the point-of-view character. And Please. Please. Please. Start with the character whose story this is—or introduce him very quickly. We need to know up front who to bond to and root for, right from the get go.

3) Take the time to introduce the character and ground him in his everyday life before throwing him into conflict. This should be accomplished quickly--a paragraph or a page or two.

4) The opening situation needs to be rife with tension or conflict—give us a character we care about who is not getting what he wants or meets opposition.

5) Make sure the tone reflects the genre to help set the readers expectations and ground them in the story.

6) No back-story information dumps! Very little back-story should be included in the opening chapter. It must be skillfully sprinkled throughout the book. Not only is it clunky, boring, and a pace-killer to dump a bunch of bask-story in the opening chapter, but withholding some back-story can be an effective tension device. Keeping the reader wondering what in her background traumatized her so that she would act that way, helps keep the reader turning pages. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by giving away all the good stuff up front.

7) Do not use dialogue to give reader information she should be showing the reader.

Agent/Editors have very little patience for slow openings that are bogged down with lots of back-story or character or setting descriptions. They find perfect characters boring, yet they don’t care for characters who are jerks either. No matter how large the character arc—you’d better give overly flawed characters some redeeming traits right up front, so the reader is at least interested in the character. Agents and editors have a low threshold for poor mechanics (grammar and spelling), so enlist the help of a great proofreader or study Strunk and White.

Follow these guidelines and you’ve at least got a shot at scoring well in a contest or getting a request for a partial or a full manuscript from an agent or editor. I will post some Agents' and editors' opening pet peeves later this week. Until then, did I miss anything?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Susan Schreyer's Debut Novel, Death by a Dark Horse

Welcome to Five Scribes and to my most recent Author Interview. Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Susan Schreyer, one of my “sisters” in Sisters in Crime, in particularly The Guppy chapter, a fabulous group that prepares SINC members for publication. Susan’s new book DEATH BY A DARK HORSE is now available for download on Amazon and Smashwords. And, ladies and gentlemen, if you’re into mysteries, dressage riding, or love horses in general, PICK UP THIS BOOK!! Please welcome Susan Schreyer to the Five Scribes.

D.B.: Good morning, Susan. I must tell you as someone who knows next to nothing about horses, your story was a fun way to become educated. But… I’m not particularly happy with you. I mean…a person being accused of murder and facing the death penalty is one thing. But an innocent horse? Talk about making your reader flip pages. What have you got to say for yourself?

S.S.: [laughs] Maybe I should say, "Bwaahahahaha!" Seriously, way back when I was plotting this story I knew I had to use situations that would infuriate a horse owner, and cause them a great deal of distress in order to have sufficient conflict to drive a reader to turn the page. Having my horse stolen and then being accused of murder would do it for me! I certainly would be compelled to action similarly to my heroine Thea (except I'd don't think I'd be as brave!).

D.B.: Your protagonist is the order-driven accountant Theodora Campbell “Thea,” and she’s a force to be reckoned with. She shows up to ride her beloved Blackie, and the thoroughbred is no where to be found. After a grueling, worrisome search, she finds him--where else--on the property of her rival. Valerie has made several offers for the horse and made no secret she would love to own him. But Thea, who loves this horse desperately, has told the Olympic champion, he’s not for sale.

Intrigued yet? Just to give Five Scribe readers a sample of what Susan put me through, read on.

“Has the horse been injured or abused in any way?" she asked.

"Not that I can tell right now, but I haven't had a chance to thoroughly check him." I reached the gate, my attention divided between managing the latch and the phone call. "I'm --" I stopped. Something was wrong. Where was Blackie?

The wind shifted, blowing my hair across my eyes. With my hands otherwise occupied, I turned my face into the breeze to clear my vision and inhaled a stench so dense it had weight.

A thousand spiders crawled up my spine.

D.B.: Now, FS Readers, before you panic, it’s not Blackie, the victim is Valerie, and here’s where a mystery lover’s dream comes true. We have a murder, substantial clues, and a suspect. Unfortunately, the prime suspect is the Black Queen's Bishop, aka "Blackie." I imagine you had a lot of fun, and endured some heartbreaking moments to write this plot, Susan. Your love of horses shows through on the pages. Talk about what inspired this story.

S.S.: Several years ago when I semi-retired from my full time teaching and training career to home school my son I found myself with time on my hands and no creative outlet. I've enjoyed writing all my life and toyed with the idea of writing a mystery novel, so I decided to see if I could do it. Bear in mind I've taught riding, primarily dressage, for about 30 years, so not only have I've owned and loved many horses but I've seen first hand how much other people love them, too. As with anything you love passionately, the flip side is heartbreak. I drew from both extremes, my own experience, and what I've been privileged to be part of to put the story together.

D.B.: You start this book so richly developed and thrust your reader into Thea’s chaotic world. I know from your bio that DEATH BY A DARK HORSE is a series. But if readers start with one, will your books be able to stand alone? Also, please tell us what plans you have for your protagonist Theodora Campbell.

S.S.: All the Thea Campbell books will be able to stand alone, but the reader will get a better perspective of the way the characters develop if the stories are read in order. Thea has some changes coming up in her life -- and they won't be easy even with her family and friends around! She'll develop her mystery/crime solving skills, and get a partner who will keep challenging her. A nemesis will come into play, as well. Some of the books will have less focus on the horse world than others, but I can guarantee Blackie will be there and help in his own special way.

D.B.: Speaking of Thea, How did she come to be? How close is she in personality to Susan Schreyer and how is she different?

S.S.: There is much of me in Thea, but one could say that of all the characters. In any novel the author creates each character from their own experiences and understanding. However, even as one creates a character they take on their own personality -- their own will! I knew my protagonist had to be a dressage rider, like me, so I could use the passion I feel for the sport and the animals. But once she arrived on the page she took charge of her own life. At times I felt as if I was simply trailing along behind her, writing down what she said, and what happened. I think most authors experience this with their characters. It's an amazing experience -- and we claim not to be crazy!

D.B.: As I said, I learned a lot of about horses. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in which the horse fascinated me as much as the human characters. Again, I refuse to spoil this book for readers, but, this is one smart horse. And I think it’s hysterical that Blackie isn’t even black. Is Blackie one of your horses, Susan, or is he a combination of many?

S.S.: I've owned many horses. Each has a distinct personality, and all have contributed to Blackie in their own way. But Blackie is primarily modeled after my horse Eddie. One of the things I wanted to do in this book was to create an animal character that wasn't simply part of the scenery. I love it when an author can convey the personality of an animal and the special relationship they have with their person. After all, our animals help shape who we are in real life and connect with us in ways that defy explanation. That needs to happen in fiction, too.

D.B: You create some fabulous characters in this book. Without giving too much away, we have Thea’s spurned-lawyer-boyfriend Jonathan, who after publicly rejecting him, Thea must ask him for help; the murder victim’s fiancĂ©, Greg, who is none to pleased with Thea and wants Blackie put down; then there’s Thea’s wonderful British Aunt and Uncle, Vi and Henry, who love Thea, but have a secret of their own; and, of course, Paul Hudson, who forgive Interviewer intrusion, she wouldn’t mind meeting;). I found them extremely three-dimensional.

Discuss if you will how you keep track of characters, their quirks and their growth. Are you a chart keeper, or are you a muse writer?

SS: I started out as a muse writer, then tried to be a chart keeper, and have currently settled on being a "structured muse-er." I have detailed personality profiles of everyone -- I feel like the FBI! However, I don't refer to them often. Once I get to know a character they tell me what they're going to do and how they will grow. Gee, funny you should bring up Paul J! He's complex and it took me a while to understand him. He challenges Thea, and their relationship is going to force both of them to grow as individuals. Sparks will fly -- count on it! Oops! Did I say too much?

D.B.: Possibly. But thanks for the heads up;). The story takes place in Snohomish, Washington, an actual place and in a perfect Washington setting. You mention several places in your story, including Bernards. Is Snohomish where you’re from? And if so, are the locals excited about your book and being mentioned?

S.S.: I don't live in Snohomish, but very close by. Although I don't use real business names in the book, and locations are somewhat vague, locals will know what I'm talking about. Folks here DO love having their town as the setting for a mystery novel!

D.B.: Thea is a very savvy woman and I love how she puts two and two together, while in a random conversation with her aunt and uncle. Mystery writing is not for novice writers. What kind of law enforcement research/training have you gone through to write this book?

S.S.: Oh dear…the "reveals all" question! I don't suppose I can get away with saying everything I know about law enforcement I learned on TV can I? No? Okay, then. Here it is: I was married to a police officer for about eight years and actually got to go on "ride-alongs" with him. It's a different world! I also have the great fortune to belong to Sisters in Crime and the Guppies chapter of SinC. There's an enormous depth of information to be had in those groups. Many members are law enforcement professionals, medical professionals, legal professionals -- basically, if you've got a question there isn't one person who knows the answer, there are scores! And they're writers as well!

D.B.: The writing is beautiful as well. You deftly use body language and subtext to tell this story. In other words, you ground us in well. How long have you been writing and what kinds of craft courses have helped you?

S.S. Thank you, Donnell! I've taken fiction writing seriously now for about six years. When I started I was determined to learn as much as I could from the people who were already successful, instead of trying to tough it out on my own. I joined a local writing group, Sisters in Crime and then Guppies, all of which were and continue to be wonderful. I've taken many courses, read scads of writing books and listened to legions people. There's an enormous amount of information to be gathered, and eventually some of it started to stick. My general rules have been to seek out the experts, ask questions, and pay attention. If something resonates, use it. If I don't understand it, forget it for now. If something or someone makes me feel bad or discouraged, walk away.

D.B.: Finally, you decided to self-publish what, in my opinion, can stand up to any published book out there. Will you tell readers why you made that decision? And then will you tell us about the cover art and the brilliant artist who designed your cover?

S.S: And thank you again, Donnell! To answer your question, there were a number of things that drove my decision to self-publish. I wrote two very lengthy blogs about it on Writing Horses in September. Briefly, I'd been going through traditional channels for some time but after reevaluating my personal goals and taking a hard look at the changes the publishing world was going through -- as is STILL going through -- I decided I needed to be the one driving my career. It's a personal choice, and the right one for me. There are many options available for getting one's work into the hands of readers now, and I expect there will be many more new and exciting paths opening up in the future. However revolutionary the publishing industry is becoming, it still is wise to take the steps necessary to produce the best work you can by getting good editing and good help.

Part of that good help is having an eye-catching cover. It was something that I could not do myself. I had no ideas and no skills! Tracy Hayes is a fellow member of Guppies and an artist as well I'd seen her website, and had fallen in love with her work and her incredible range. Tracy is also a horsewoman. How lucky could I get? I sucked up my courage and asked her if she'd help me and she generously agreed. She read my manuscript and kept me involved in the cover-creating process. I'm very lucky to have her on my team.

D.B.: Congratulations on an amazing debut mystery, which I enjoyed immensely. Readers, if you would like to follow Susan she has an award-winning blog, and another on

S.S.: Thanks so much for having me Donnell! This was fun!

D.B.: For me, too, Susan. Come back when LEVELS OF DECEPTION is out ;) Readers, do you have any questions or comments for Susan. Her book is very affordable on Amazon or Smashwords. I know you’ll enjoy it.

About Susan: Susan Schreyer lives in the great state of Washington with her husband, two children, a demanding old cat and an untrustworthy rabbit. The horse lives within easy driving distance. When not writing stories about people in the next town being murdered, articles for worthy publications, or blogging, Susan trains horses and teaches people how to ride them. She is a member of the Guppies Chapter of Sisters in Crime where she serves as a member of the steering committee, and is co-president of the Puget Sound Chapter of SinC. Death By A Dark Horse is her debut mystery. The second book in the Thea Campbell series, Levels of Deception will be out in early spring of 2011.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cover art released!

I've been waaaay behind the eight-ball in all things in my life. Actually, I'm still celebrating with Donnell...WooHoo on that contract, babe! So happy and proud of you!!

I have a tiny bit of good news to share. Steeple Hill finally released my cover. Everything I told them about the setting of my book, the artist captured with a fine tipped brush, LOL! May I introduce you to Rocky Mountain Hero...

I have a thing for cowboys and they gave me a great one!!

If you have a second, I'm guest blogging on Words Seasoned With Salt. Stop by and say hi. Leave a comment and you'll be in a drawing for a copy of Rocky Mountain Hero!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The 2011 Sandy!

We've got another terrific line-up of final judges at The Sandy this year. Acquiring editors and top-selling agents!
This year, to make my life easier, we're also going to electronic submissions. Hopefully this will be easier and more convenient for our writers too.
Take a look! Tell all your writing pals who are ready to throw their hat in the ring and earn some recognition from people who can jumpstart your writing career!

2011 Sandy Final Judges
  • Romance - Holly Blanck, Assistant Editor, St. Martin's Press
  • Mainstream Adult Fiction - Leis Pederson, Associate Editor, Berkley
  • Suspense / Thriller / Mystery - Sarah Knight, Senior Editor, Simon & Schuster
  • Fantasy / Science Fiction - Suzie Townsend, FinePrint Literary Management
  • Children's & YA - Holly Root, Agent at Waxman Literary Agency
Oh, and two more of my past Sandy winners have sold the winning entries this year. Congratulations to Kerri-Leigh Grady and Donnell Ann Bell!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

NaNoWriMo -- One Participant's Perspective...So Far

Seriously fun. 

When they say on the banner, "Thirty days and nights of literary abandon" I took that to heart.

I'm working on a novel.  I haven't worked on a novel for a long long time, you all know I'd traded writing passions and was working exclusively on screenwriting.  So I'm feeling VERY rusty writing a novel,

But you all also know I've been seduced by the e-book phenom.  The books out there are good, so mine will have excellent company :)  BUT I needed a kick in the pants to get it done.

WOW is NaNoWriMo a fun kick.

I'm writing, thoughts are flowing, pacing is fast, details aren't happening and I'm not editing myself (almost a first)  I'm just writing the story.  All the rest will come later.

By today, 1/4 of the way through-ish the month, I should have close to 11K words.  Not there yet, but I'm not giving up.  I will have the required 50k words by the end of the month in order to be considered a winner.  I WILL.  I vow in front of all of you.  I have a blasted cold, but that will not keep me down.

Then I'll have the major portion of a book written.  Not well mind you, but remember what I always say; you can't fix it if you don't have anything to fix

Puke is what I'm doing, and I'm loving it. 

Back to the page.


Friday, November 5, 2010

Best Birthday Ever -- a Publishing Contract

I am thrilled to announce that I have sold my 2007 Golden Heart finaling manuscript WALK AWAY JOE. I don't have all the details yet, as the name will change to reflect the suspense. I'm more than fine with that. To learn more about my new publisher check out Thanks for letting me share ;) Talk about a happy birthday! Here's the announcement that ran in Publisher's Marketplace.


Donnell Ann Bell's WALK AWAY JOE, in which a Colorado woman threatened by a stalker must depend on the protection of the police officer who sent her to prison years ago, to Deborah Smith and Debra Dixon of Bell Bridge Books, in a nice deal, for publication in Fall 2011 (World).