Thursday, February 24, 2011

Coloring Outside the Lines--An In depth Talk with Ann Charles

Every now and then, a book has the rare ability to resonate with most every person who reads it. NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD, written by debut author Ann Charles, is such a novel. In 2010, Ann entered her manuscript in the Mainstream category of RWA's Kiss of Death Chapter's annual contest, the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. Not only did NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD win its genre, Ann's entry rose to the highest honor in the entire unpublished competition, earning her the Overall Daphne Award. What's more, her manuscript was requested by both the editor and agent who judged it in the final round. But Ann had other plans. Today, I'm hoping she'll share what those plans entail. Please welcome Ann Charles to the Five Scribes.

D.B.: Hi, Ann, welcome! First of all, I can't decide if you're a writer or a chef. As I read NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD, I pictured you over your keyboard, 1) having too much fun, and, 2) stirring in a potful of subgenres to make this an incredible read! NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD has everything--it's laugh out loud funny, it has a great mystery, it tugs at your heart strings, has a lovely romance and even borders on paranormal. So my first question is, if you had to pigeonhole yourself as an author, what category would you put yourself in?

A.C.: Ugh, that's a tough question. As you mentioned, I specialize in being all over the place when it comes to subgenres. This need to mix my genres and subgenres has been a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing in that it makes my stories slightly different from many and a blast to write. But it's a curse when it comes to selling them to a New York publisher. Where do I fit on the bookstore shelf? In which section? Mystery? Romance? Paranormal? Mainstream? My answer has always been, "Just put my books(s) in all of these sections and let's sell even more!" Ha!

Seriously, when asked to fit into a category, I often describe myself as a Romantic Mystery author who includes a bit of paranormal to spice it up. When I plot my stories, I map out a mystery plot and a romance plot. The way I have designed NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD, the romance plot is integral to the mystery plot. There are some other underlying tricks I use to make the different plots blend smoothly, but like most chefs, I just mix everything to taste--my taste.

You have a great introduction in the book that explains how the plot came to be. I would call this a "gift" book in that the characters just hitched a ride with you on your way to Deadwood. You mentioned you brainstormed the book with your husband and critique partners. Tell us what sparked the idea in the first place and how has this story evolved from draft to finish?

A.C.: Three things came together to spark the idea for this story. First, I've been spending summers in Deadwood since I was 12, and over the years I have accumulated a lot of knowledge of the area and its history, and I have some wonderful memories of people, places and hilarious events. A few years back, while pregnant with our second (and last!) child, we were in Deadwood visiting my mom and step dad. On the way into town I had this idea hit me: a single mom with two kids--twins--struggling to make ends meet while trying out a new career in a new town. That's when Violet was born.

Second, about that time, we were working with a Realtor here in Washington state to buy some land in beautiful northeastern Washington. The Realtor we hooked up with went by the name "Doc," even though that wasn't his first name. I thought it was clever of his friends to use his D.R. initials and give him such a nickname. Now you know where Doc got his name.

Third, this Realtor of ours drove us around in a four-wheel drive Jeep to see properties, because many of the pieces of land we were looking at were way out in the boonies on old mountain roads. Hearing him talk about his job while riding around with him got me daydreaming about what it would be like to be a Realtor where a four-wheel drive vehicle was often required. This is where I came up with Violet being a Realtor.
So, these three things, combined with my knowledge and love of Deadwood's past and present, sparked the fire for this story.

As I plotted out the mystery and romance, my husband would listen (the poor man had no choice), and then he would push me to tweak things a little in order to make the book stronger, yet different.
While I wrote the first draft, he and several close friends (some authors, some not) read the book, chapter by chapter, as fast as my fingers could put out pages. I was constantly testing my ideas, listening to their feedback, tweaking as I wrote. It took about eight months to write and polish it had have it ready for public consumption (I'm not a fast writer, and I have two kids and a full-time day job). Caffeine kept me up late into the night repeatedly as I wrote.

When my agent first read it, she called yelling, "You're brilliant! I love it!" (You can see why I have stayed with her through thick and thin--ha!) Unfortunately, while many editors have liked the story (we even made it into acquisitions at Mira), the consensus has been rejection due to its not being marketable enough, not "big" enough. My job now is to show what I know--there is a definite market for this mixed up, wild ride of a story, and I am having a lot of fun doing just that.

D.B.: Your protagonist, Violet Parker is a down-and-out single mom of adolescent fraternal twins, a boy, Layne, and a girl Adelynn "Addy" Renee. I think I fell in love with the twins more than anything. And I love Violet's relationships with her children. Soon after the story opens, Layne, no doubt a future archeologist, is digging up his great aunt's back yard, while Addy's goal is to become a veterinarian--but not before she finds her mother a husband. Those two kids were priceless. You have younger children, don't you? How did you manage to create such terrific, three-dimensional nine-year-olds?

A.C.: My kids are a bit younger than Addy and Layne, but I have lots of nieces and nephews whom I have hung out with over the years, so I pull nuggets of fun stuff from those experiences and memories as I write the scenes with the kids. I also imagine what my two kids will be like when they get older and I inject some of those daydreams into the mix. While I'm not a single mother like Violet, I have watched both of my sisters and several good friends experience being single parents at different times. As a parent myself, I am continually amazed at how single parents keep going day in and day out. Without my husband around to help raise our kids, I'd be sitting in a corner chanting and drooling most days. I felt that with Violet, I could pay a tribute to all of the single parents out there who struggle to pay bills and raise healthy, happy kids.

D.B.: Forced to move in with her Aunt Zoe, Violet goes to work at Calamity Jane Realty as a Realtor. From the very start, there's conflict as Violet has a limited time to sell a house before another Realtor, Ray Underhill, convinces the owner to let Violet go and replace her with Ray's nephew. In addition to Violet struggling to support her family, little girls are going missing. What's more, they bear a striking resemblance to Addy.

As the mother of two grown children, I think this story would be tough to write. But you do so beautifully, in a compassionate manner and even incorporate humor. How difficult was this story to write based on the subject matter? And when you were submitting, what kind of obstacles did you face?

A.C.: There is nothing funny at all about children being abducted. As a parent, just the thought of my child disappearing can keep me up at night. Unfortunately, abductions happen repeatedly, as we all know. I've often wondered how parents find a way to go on with their lives after such a heartbreaking and horrific event, and how the people surrounding them go on, too. Violet is an example of how I imagine I might handle such a frightening situation in my own life. As much as I often want to lock my kids up tight in our house, I can't do that. I have to let them experience life and take risks, just like I did. As parents, it's our job to both protect our children and yet expose them to life--the fun stuff and the not-so-fun stuff. We have to prepare them for adulthood, which is full of pitfalls and tragedy. Violet tackles this with a sense of humor. It's in her nature to be optimistic and witty, and my goal was to make this personality trait shine through on the page, even in the darkest moments.

As for obstacles, the only one related to child abductions was that some publishers will not purchase books in which children are endangered. Other publishers had guidelines about the amount of sex in a mystery, so that removed a few other options. Many romance publishers also had guidelines that the story didn't fit. From the beginning, I knew that I would hit roadblocks with this story. I'm not coloring within the lines. But my hope was that enough people would read the story and say, "Wow!" and not care that I didn't stay inside those lines.

D.B.: You do a great job of introducing a cast of quirky characters who are still well formed in my mind after a couple weeks of finishing the book. Harvey and his shotgun, Wolfgang trying to unload his mother's property which turns out is listed on the Historic Register, Doc Nyce and his tendency to sniff every time he enters a house. Do your characters just come to you, or does it take some time to get to know them? And who in your mind was the most fun to create?

A.C.: Most of my characters just come to me, as if they are stepping on to the stage ready for the show, lines already practiced. I will admit, though, that in the first draft of a book and the first scene with a new character, there is often a lot of typing, backspacing, and typing something else. I used to do interviews of characters (I have an early interview with Violet on my website that I wrote prior to starting to write the story), but the more I practiced improving my craft, the less I felt I needed to do the interviews outside of my head.

Harvey was probably the most fun to create, but he really kind of created himself. When I first created my usual high-level, rough sketch of the characters and plot, he was not in the mix at all. He didn't show up until that first line, "The first time I came to Deadwood I got shot in the ass," popped into my head. At that moment, I saw Violet standing there with a double-barrel shotgun pointed at her kisser, and I asked myself, "Who's holding the shotgun?" In walked Old Man Harvey (who looks a little like Jack Elam in my mind) and he was there to stay. As I wrote each scene, those first draft readers who read chapter by chapter, kept demanding more screen time for him, so I kept delivering. Before I knew it, Violet had a sidekick who was a dirty old man with a heart of gold. Time after time, I hear from readers who love Harvey and how he takes care of Violet.

D.B.: The city of Deadwood itself is almost a character in your book. I read you were on your way to Deadwood when the story idea hit. But had you never thought of placing a story there before? And what kind of reaction have you gotten from the citizens of Deadwood and South Dakota?

A.C.: Oddly enough, no. I hadn't thought of setting a book in Deadwood prior to this story. I don't know why not, but I have a feeling it's because I was waiting for the right story and character to come to me. I had spent my summers in Deadwood during my teen years after my mom moved there from Ohio. My stepfather, brothers, mother, and I explored back roads, ghost towns, old abandoned mines, and gulches constantly. The history of the place entranced us, and there was always a road we hadn't traveled that needed to be checked out.

My guess is that because Deadwood is near and dear to me I hadn't really stepped back and thought of it as a setting for one of my stories. But then the whole Violet Parker concept hit me out of the blue on my way down into Deadwood that day, and I just knew in my gut that this was meant to be. Authors are often told to write what they know, and I bucked at that time and again, setting a book in the Yucatan Peninsula (which was a finalist entry in the RWA Golden Heart contest), and then setting a whole series in Southeastern Arizona right next to a big mining town (the first in this series was a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest). Those stories took a lot of research, but Deadwood just poured out of me. The years of exploring the town and surrounding hills paid off, and when I write the story, I am able to slip in and out of the setting by just closing my eyes. I can feel the summer sun, smell the pine trees, hear the sounds of Main Street. That really has made a difference in my comfort level in this series, and I think that comes across on the page.

As for what kind of reaction I've received from the citizens of Deadwood (and Lead,) the neighboring town that plays a bigger role in book 2 of the series, due out as an ebook in April), they have been absolutely wonderful in their support. The Chamber of Commerce is working with my publicist to set up several book signing events for the ten days I'm there in early August, including venues that are the fodder of my dreams. The city of Lead is also being extremely supportive, setting up mixers and signings for me that involve the local citizens and tourists. On top of that several businesses have already been helping me to promote the book, plus sharing word-of-mouth advertising with friends and family in the vicinity as well as across the state and even overseas. The people of the Black Hills and surrounding area are such a great group of folks, but this is something I've known about for years. Their friendship and generosity are things I try to capture a little in the stories. Almost every day I am surprised by another person or business in the area who is willing to help me get word out about the book/series. From the owner of a vacation home management business to a local dentist, from bank employees to a state senator, I have been received with open arms and offered all sorts of help in spreading word about my book. It's incredible and I can't thank them all enough.

D.B.: The pacing, the mystery and the humor come together in the book seamlessly. Are you an intrinsically funny writer? Did you start out the book with humor in mind or more as a mystery/suspense? What authors have inspired you?

A.C.: I don't think of myself as a comedian, but I do love to laugh at life, and I find that I screw up often and end up laughing at myself more often than not. When I step into Violet's head and tell her story, I take some of the thoughts that I have been taught by my parents to keep to myself and let them spill onto the page. Do I swear as much as Violet does in her head? Don't tell my mother, but, yes, I definitely do. Probably a lot more, but I try to keep most of it in my head (except when I'm in the company of bikers and sailors).

I started out thinking Violet would have a sense of humor that comes with trying to raise two kids in a tough world--a witty sarcasm that comes from calluses on the heart. She actually came out a little more sassy than I'd intended, and within no time she was making me laugh with her reactions. That might sound a little crazy, but I am, so it fits. There have been so many times that I write a line or scene and stop and read it again out loud and chuckle for a bit. For example, when I wrote this bit, I had to go find my husband and read it to him because it tickled me so much.

Brief setup: Violet is at work with her hated coworker, Ray. He's on the phone happily telling his nephew about how lousy a Realtor Vi is, and how she's going to lose her job due to a lack of sales. The nephew asks if Ray thinks Violet might pull off a homerun yet and get to keep her job.


Ray's laughter echoed off the plaster-covered walls. "The Queen of Strikeouts? No way."

My molars grinding, I glared at Ray.

He blew me a kiss.

I flipped him off.

It was one of those warm, fuzzy moments they wrote about on Hallmark cards.

Authors who have inspired me? To name a few of the well-known ones: Stephen King for his horror elements, Dean Koontz for his ability to infuse setting into a story, Rachel Gibson for her steamy and addictive love scenes, Susan Andersen for her blending of mystery and comedy, Katie MacAlister for her way of using 1st Person Point-of-View so seamlessly, Jane Porter for her ability to yank on heartstrings, and Vicki Lewis Thompson for her fun paranormal and romance mix.

D.B.: You've mentioned that book two is coming out in April. Will you give us a blurb?

A.C.: Yes, I am far from finished with the Deadwood Mystery Series. Currently I have twelve in mind, but that could change depending on the reception the series receives, and if it becomes popular enough to go out that far or more. I have a lot planned for Violet as she grows as a character and woman/mom.

The second book in the series, titled, OPTICAL DELUSIONS IN DEADWOOD, is currently scheduled for ebook release in mid-April 2011 and for print book release in late June 2011. (I am currently writing the third book in the series titled, DEAD CASE IN DEADWOOD," which will be out in late 2011 or early 2012, depending on how fast I can get it written.)

The second book picks up about two weeks after the last scene in NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD, with many of the same characters and several new ones. It takes place during the famous Sturgis biker rally and has bikers all over the place. The house that acts as the main centerpiece in this book is in the city of Lead, Deadwood's blue-collar twin. The house actually sits right on the edge of the huge open-pit mine in the middle of Lead, separated from the pit by a razor-wire fence. Violet quickly allows herself to get mired in another mystery and has to solve her way out of the mess, much to Harvey, Doc and Cooper the detective's frustration. This second book fleshes out the characters in more depth along with the area's history. It's the same mix of genres all over again.

~~~Word has it single mom, Violet Parker--Deadwood's most notorious Realtor--likes to chitchat with ghosts. With her reputation damaged, her bank account on the verge of extinction, and her career threatening to go up in flames, Violet is desperate to make a sale. When the opportunity to sell another vintage home materializes, she grabs it, even though this "haunted" house was recently the stage for a two-act, murder-suicide tragedy. Ghost or no ghost, Violet knows this can't be as bad as the last house of horrors she tried to sell, but charmingly irresistible Doc Nyce isn't so sure. Her only hope of hanging on to her job is to prove that the so-called, ghostly sightings are merely the eccentric owner's optical delusions. Unfortunately someone--or something--in the house wants her stopped...dead. ~~~

D.B.: Can't wait. The cover on your book is extraordinary. Who did your cover art?

A.C.: The artist is C.S. Kunkle, who happens to be my brother. He also drew the graphics that are inside the printed version of the book--I think seven in all. He's been drawing since we were kids, and he's also one of the main sources for my wild imagination. His art is a little twisted and wild, and his love of monsters has kept me afraid of the dark since we were kids on the farm in Ohio. He would often tell me stories of vampires or werewolves living out behind the barn--the same barn in which I had to do chores on dark winter nights all alone. I grew up watching scary movies with him, and I'm pretty sure he's warped part of my brain. We have wanted to work on a joint project for years, and when I couldn't hook a New York publisher with this book, I turned to him and asked if he would be willing to work with me on this project and represent the books in the art form. He never even hesitated. Now, if you check out my Deadwood website, (, as well as my main Ann Charles website, you will see his art all over the pages. I'm extremely fortunate that my parents put my crib in his room when he was four, because we've stuck together through thick and thin ever since. Having such a talented artist so willing to work with me is an incredible boost to my career. And I can always tell on him to our parents if he's mean to me ;)

You've had a long road to hoe with this book. NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD came close to being accepted by a major publisher. You're agented. But even with the prestige of a Daphne win behind your name, where you might have gone to a major house, you elected to do something different. Would you talk about that decision, what it's doing for your writing career and what are your future plans?

A.C.: Time and again, this book was rejected by major publishers. The editors were wonderfully kind, always saying good things about my writing style and the story, but time and again they weren't sure there was a market for the story. Months of teeth grinding left me pretty frustrated, so when a small, brand new publisher approached me and not only offered to publish my book, but also asked if I'd like to partner in the business with them, I jumped in with both feet. This meant that I could use my brother's art for the cover and the inside drawings, that I would get to play general contractor with the book and learn more about the publishing side of the business, and I would have more say on marketing and promoting the book to the audience I knew was out there for it. In exchange for more work, I'd get more pay for every book sold.

While I don't think this route to publication is the best way for everyone, it works for me because I've spent almost five years learning all about marketing and promotion in addition to improving my writing skills. I am a technical writer by day, so I knew I could format according to print-company guidelines. I know many great editors (both line and content), so I was confident in my ability to produce a clean story. My weak areas are accounting and taxes, but that is where my partner steps in and takes care of business.
This decision to partner with a publisher and go through the process of producing an ebook and a print book (via Lightning Source) has taught me a lot about publishing a book and all of the work that goes into it. I have much more respect for publishers now, and understand why they do some of the things I often thought seemed odd or wrong. I have had stressful lows that have chewed on my gut and dizzying highs that leave me feeling drunk for days. By the end of 2011, I'll have a better idea of what it's done for my career, but so far, it's given me much more self-confidence than I had just a year ago. I've created a product from start to finish and this product is selling well out of the gate. I've never felt more in charge of my writing career than I have since taking on this new role and partnering with Corvallis Press.

Future plans? Write and sell more books. Ha! Seriously, this fall, we're planning to put out the first of my Arizona mystery series while the third book in the Deadwood series is finished and run through the editing gauntlet. The second in the Arizona series will come out after the third in the Deadwood series.
Corvallis Press also will be taking submissions in the near future. The plan is to test and experiment on a couple of my books, because the author couldn't get mad at us and yell a lot about something we might have screwed up (well, she could, but I'd look pretty darn stupid, yelling in the mirror). After we have a groove down using my books, we will open the window to other authors who are interested in having a more hands-on role in their careers. Stay tuned.

I appreciate your forthright honesty. One last question: With the publishing industry changing right before our eyes, what advice, if any, would you give to aspiring authors?

A.C.: If writing to get published and sell books is what you really want to do, realize that winning contests, finding a publisher (or agent), and becoming a bestseller doesn't happen overnight. It takes years, sometimes decades. I have been working to be published for about 14 years now. (Yeah, ouch, right?) Many authors do it in less time than I have, others take longer. Patience is necessary, as is being open to continually learning. Perseverance and practice are also essential. Most important--this is an entrepreneurial business. Entrepreneurs are known for living, breathing, and sleeping businesses. Writing is the same. If your family doesn't periodically consider staging an intervention to break you from your writing-related addiction, you aren't working hard enough to succeed.

Thank you, Donnell, for having me over to chat about NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD. Your questions were excellent. You asked questions that made me stop and ponder, really digging deep. Barbara Walters should take lessons from you ;)

Absolutely my pleasure, Ann. I put Ms. Walters on speed dial, but so far she hasn't returned my calls. ;) Readers, I let this interview run long, because, as you can see, Ann doesn't just wear her trademark cowboy hat, she wears multiple headdresses these days. Ann will be giving away NEARLY DEPARTED IN DEADWOOD, either in a ebook format or print form, one lucky reader's preference. Since it's the weekend, we'll draw a winner Monday evening.

To learn more about Ann or view her brother's artwork, check out

So there you have it. Questions? Comments? Anyone care to talk about this crazy industry we love?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Agent Helen Breitwieser, Cornerstone Literary

Helen Breitwieser is a literary agent and owner of Cornerstone Literary Agency in Los Angeles, CA. Her agency represents a wide range of novelists with an emphasis on women's fiction, children's books, romance and suspense/mystery. Clients include Katherine Center, Beth Fantaskey, C.S. Harris, Rachel Lee, Sophia Nash, Ursula Vernon, Tracy Anne Warren and Ahmet Zappa. Before founding Cornerstone Literary in 1998, she was a literary agent at the William Morris Agency in New York. Helen will be attending the June 17-19, 2011 Crested Butte Writers Conference.

  1. Which categories do you currently acquire? Which category has a special/constant place in your heart?
    Answer: literary fiction, upmarket women’s commercial fiction (think reading group), mystery and suspense, YA and middle grade fiction, romance.

  1. What length synopsis do you prefer to see with a partial? Single spaced or double?

Answer: 1-3 pages, always double-spaced.

  1. In terms of submissions, what are you sick to death of and what would you like to see more of?

Answer: I’ve seen too many serial killer plots, legal thrillers and Harry Potter copycats. I love atmospheric historical or contemporary novels with indelible characters. Books I’ve read recently that were page-turners for me: Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution; Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule; Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad; Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker; Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil.

  1. What are the most compelling elements you feel are necessary for a good
    read? What particularly grabs your attention?

    Answer: precise and vibrant language; a tense and dramatic plot; dimensional, sympathetic characters drawn with insight, humor and wisdom

  1. For you, which elements in a fiction submission are terminal problems garnering automatic rejections and which are tempting and fixable meriting a look at a revision if a talented author is willing to accept your advice?
    1. Voice (automatic rejection)
    2. Weak Grammar (automatic rejection)
    3. Common plot (automatic rejection)
    4. Poor character development (automatic rejection)
    5. Story is too controversial (ie rape, politics, religion—what else?) (not a problem)
    6. Mediocre / uninspired writing (automatic rejection)
    7. Excessive use of violence or cursing (fixable)
    8. Lacking genre –specific requirements like, suspense/sexual tension/ world-building (automatic rejection)
    9. Pacing is off—plot is too slow (fixable)
    10. Story starts in wrong spot (fixable)
    11. Ending is unsatisfactory (fixable)
    12. Other

  1. Does meeting an author face-to-face at a conference make a difference in your response time, the submission process, or the rejection process (ie. Form letter vs a few sentences of advice)?

Answer: yes

  1. Besides the writing, the story and the talent, what are the most important elements you look for in an author, ie. contest wins, cooperativeness, affiliations to writers organizations, knowledge of publishing industry, promotability, etc?

Answer: affability

  1. Do you have any pet peeves?

Answer: query letters from strangers that begin “Dear Helen”

  1. What are you addicted to?

Answer: conversation, tea, libraries, suspense novels, the New York Post, Ireland

  1. What have you always wanted to do?

Answer: have lunch in Capri with Graham Greene.

  1. Do you have a favorite quote?
Answer: “Do not hurry; do not rest.”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What Comes First? The Characters or the Plot?

During my recent interview with Historical Author Kaki Warner, she mentioned that everything in her book was to show characterization and not necessarily to advance the plot. As a plot-driven author, I found this statement amazing. The fact that she does advance the plot comes secondary, I suppose.

I've given that statement a lot of thought as I outline my next story. I'm getting to know my characters, and will know them well by the end of the book. But I confess, right now, I don't know their character/backstory well enough to fill out character sketches, graphs or to conduct character interviews. Nor do I know what plot points to put them through to "show" their personalities or character at the beginning of the book.

I simply have to have a plot first (or have an idea of what kind of plot I'm writing) before I can focus on the characters. I've given some thought to creating a story for my teenage characters from my soon to be published novel, but the plot is shaping before I get to know these boys as grown men.

So how about you? Is this part of creating intrinsic? Kind of like -- the chicken or the egg? What comes first when you're writing? The characters or the plot? I'd really like to know your process.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Every Writer Needs a Buddy System

Maggie Toussaint writes both mystery and romance, with five books published to date. Her first novel HOUSE OF LIES, won a National Reader's Choice Award for Best Romantic Suspense. She's active in writer's organizations and freelances for a weekly newspaper. Today she's the Five Scribes special guest as she talks about the buddy system. Please welcome Maggie Toussaint.

Romeo has Mercutio. Sherlock Holmes has Dr. Watson. Stephanie Plum has Lula and Grandma Mazur. Eve Dallas has Peabody.

Great duos are a powerful enrichment tool in genre fiction, but it took me a while to discern why. While some writers may intuitively glom onto that power of two, I learned the old-fashioned way, through trial and error.

An early critique partner (forgive me, SD) used to write long passages from her main character POV. It was flat out fascinating to her. She hung on his every word. The rest of us, not so much. The published member of that critique group suggested that she give the lead character a friend. SD didn't like that idea because everything in her story was all set in her mind. Truthfully, what was set was a book with poor tension and fettered pacing because of the large chunks of weighty narrative.

Now what is so amazing is that while I could see this flaw in her work, I never noticed a lesser occurrence of it in mine. At the time, I was working on a story about an offbeat interior designer trying to get out from under debt to the mob. Criticism within the group abounded for my story, much to my frustration, and even though I reworked it for a year, I finally put it away in disgust. I was certain the main character was unsympathetic and nothing short of a personality transplant would resuscitate that dead-dog.

With the virtue of 20/20 hindsight, I realized the protagonist needed a sidekick. When there are two people in a scene, it comes to life. The secondary character may or may not have a character arc in the story. More often than not, the secondary character serves as a sounding board or a foil for the story protagonist.

During the crafting of my Cleopatra Jones mystery series, I gave Cleo a sidekick. Life had given me the perfect model of a sidekick--a lifelong friend who stood with me through thick and thin. With this example in mind, I crafted Cleo and Jonette to have different body builds, different rules about men and different lifestyles.

However, Cleo and Jonette are joined at the hip when it comes to golfing, dogs and solving crimes, giving them commonality and reason to spend time together, while at the same time providing built-in conflict. They share an absolute loyalty to each other, an enduring bond of universal friendship that resonates with readers.

You might consider adding a sidekick to your story if your work keeps coming back from contests, editors, agents and critique partners with comments like these: your characters just didn't grab me, or the story concept is good but is poorly executed, or even the story is narrative-heavy, disrupting the pacing and lessening the story tension.

Though these comments can also indicate other craft problems, the underlying issue may be a simple fix like adding a buddy. For example, which is more interesting? A downed airplane pilot trying to get back to civilization alone? Or with a dependent character (older, younger, injured, etc.) [character as a sidekick]. Once you add in that other person, possibilities abound.

With two characters, setting elements can be worked into dialogue as the characters react to their surroundings. Your character buddies can discuss an event that already happened, adding new interpretations, or they can plan their next avenue of investigation. Backstory can be alluded to and kept in the background.

Simply put, two is better than one.

In fact, the buddy system works for writers as well as fictional characters. Two sets of eyes are better than one. At the weekly newspaper where I freelance, the rule is that two sets of eyes have to read every story. Once the pages are "pasted" together, two sets of eyes must sign-off on each individual page. We catch many mistakes this way.

Two sets of eyes are also a good rule for fiction writing. Many writers use critique partners to review their work before it begins the rounds of submissions. Other writers hone their prose by submitting to writing contests that provide feedback.

You might assume that this double-check only works for unpublished writers, but I personally know authors who are on the New York Times bestseller list who wouldn't dream of sending something in to their editor without a "beta" reader seeing it first.

After investing heart and soul in the story, authors can become too close to the words. Sure, authors develop lists of overused words, throwaway words, passive constructions, and cliches to remove in the final edits, but many authors want the assurance that everything hangs together before they put their work out there. Each story is a fresh start, a chance to soar or fall flat on your face.

Whether published or unpublished, authors need constructive input. Since everyone works a little differently, your personal solution can be tailored to fit your needs. If critique partners drive you nuts, find an alternative way to gain input. Professional writing organizations, such as Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, often provide a common ground for like-minded writers to meet and swap their work.

Once you receive a critique or review of your work, the burden then falls on your shoulders to discern which advice is relevant. If you're in a group and receive conflicting input, chances are good that the passage in question needs stronger goals, motivations, or conflict. If you receive similar input from different sources on what needs improvement, this is usually golden and you should make those changes without quibbling.

A last caution, and final duo to consider. When making changes to your manuscript, save it to your hard drive and back up the revised document in an auxiliary location (flash drive, external hard drive or online repository). Do this on a regular basis--files need buddies, too.

Maggie Toussaint's golf game formed the basis of her mystery protagonist's golf woes. While tromping through the forested rough, she realized there's something about trying to hit a white ball in a small hole that brings out dark thoughts and murderous possibilities. With that insight IN FOR A PENNY, the first book of the Cleopatra Jones series sprang forth. ON THE NICKEL, the second installment of the series due out in March 2011, puts Cleo's sleuthing to the test once Mama's car is identified as the murder weapon.

To learn more about Maggie, visit her at

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Interview with Writer's House Agent Stephen Barr

Stephen Barr is an agent with Writers House and attending the June 17-19th Crested Butte Writers Conference

1. Which categories do you currently acquire? Which category has a special/constant place in your heart?

Answer: I'm a pretty omnivorous agent, but at the moment, I've got a particular hankering for unexpected memoirs with itchy voices, narrative nonfiction that tackles hard-to-tackle issues, wry and rarely paranormal YA, laugh-until-you-squirt-milk-out-of-your-nose middle grade, sweet and wacky (but still logical) picture books from author/illustrators, and fiction that rewards the reader line-by-line and gets to know at least one character really, really well (recent favorites include Jeff In Venice, The Lazarus Project, Diary of a Bad Year, and Horns, which was awesome). I'm also willing to be a sucker for smart, unconventional thrillers, mysteries that bend reality, ghost stories that blow reality to hell, fictional or not-so-fictional portrayals of abnormal psychology, and humor that's more than just an infinitely repeated gag in sheep's clothing.

2. What length synopsis do you prefer to see with a partial? Single spaced or double?

Answer: Anything longer than a (single spaced) page tends to make me antsy, truth be told…if the basic premise of the book (the sort of thing that can fit into a paragraph or two) intrigues me, I much prefer to find out the rest by reading the thing itself, and not a summary or greatest hits collection of scenes!

3. In terms of submissions, what are you sick to death of and what would you like to see more of?

Answer: I’m trying not to be sick to death of anything just yet (it sounds like an awful condition!), but I will say that I’m much more interested in personal demons than ACTUAL demons, who seem to be littering the pages of young adult literature (and a fair amount of adult suspense) like confetti. Personally, I find paranormal touches to be more effective when the reader’s not exactly sure that whatever’s going on is, in fact, paranormal…when there’s an ambiguity that touches upon our everyday fears, as opposed to the much rarer fears of, let’s say, fire-breathing angels, or who knows what. I like being scared, but I prefer to be scared of what’s real.

4. What are the most compelling elements you feel are necessary for a good read? What particularly grabs your attention?

Answer: For me, I can’t really get fired up unless a) the writing, line by line, is a joy to read independent of the story it’s telling, and b) the characters feel authentic and interesting and interested in the world around them. After only the first page, if there’s already a charisma to the language and a character I want to know more about, odds are I’ll make it pretty deep into the manuscript to find out if the potential holds up.

5. For you, which elements in a fiction submission are terminal problems garnering automatic rejections and which are tempting and fixable meriting a look at a revision if a talented author is willing to accept your advice?

If there’s an engaging voice, sharp writing, an interesting plot, and at least one character I give two shakes about, then I’m willing to work hours on end to fix just about any other problem, whether it be a fuzzy ending, a wonky structure, or even a parade of iffy scenes.

6. Does meeting an author face-to-face at a conference make a difference in your response time, the submission process, or the rejection process (ie. Form letter vs a few sentences of advice)?

Answer: Ultimately, I’d say the difference between my sending a form letter and something more substantial lies in my connection to the manuscript—if there was a glimmer somewhere, an idea that seemed to be worthy of exploration, and I felt that I had something truly constructive to say, and that I wouldn’t be averse to seeing a revision, then I’ll break from the form letter, absolutely. If my brain fails to click with anything particular in a submission, though, then I’m probably not even the right person to be giving advice, anyhow. That being said, forming even the briefest of personal connections face to face with an author inevitably increases the odds that I’ll push myself to look harder for that glimmer if it doesn’t make itself immediately apparent.

7. Besides the writing, the story and the talent, what are the most important elements you look for in an author, ie. contest wins, cooperativeness, affiliations to writers organizations, knowledge of publishing industry, promotability, etc?

Answer: After the quality of the submission itself (which is, of course, 99.9% of the dance), I’d say I’m just looking to see if the author is someone I have a chemistry with, which is usually hinted at outside of their manuscript, in their OTHER forms of communication…does their regular ol’ everyday voice (the one they use in a simple e-mail or a simple phone call) put me at ease or put me on edge? Formality is less important to me than personality.

8. Do you have any pet peeves?

Answer: I don’t deal well with moodiness (though maybe that counts as a form of moodiness?)

9. What are you addicted to?

Answer: It used to be rice pudding (no fooling). I’m still figuring out what my next obsession should be, or if I should just relapse back into rice pudding (have you tried it!?)

10. What have you always wanted to do?

Answer: Be a dad!

11. Do you have a favorite quote?

Answer: There’s no king of the hill for me, but I like this one a great deal: “It is difficult to be confused.” – Zheng Xie

Monday, February 7, 2011

Only One Week to Enter The Sandy!

Calling all experienced writers! Treat yourself to a wonderful Valentine’s Day present and enter The Sandy today.

Only ONE week left to enter The Sandy Writing Contest. !

Don’t miss out on this fabulous opportunity to snag the attention of these acquiring editors and agents!

2011 Sandy Final Round Judges

  • Romance - Holly Blanck, Assistant Editor, St. Martin's Press
  • Mainstream Adult Fiction - Leis Pederson, Associate Editor, Berkley
  • Suspense/Thriller/Mystery-Sarah Knight, Sr. Editor, Simon & Schuster
  • Fantasy/Science Fiction - Suzie Townsend, FinePrint Literary Management
  • Children's & YA - Holly Root, Agent at Waxman Literary Agency

Deadline is February 13, 2011

***This is a very competitive writing contest that can give valuable feedback and gain invaluable access to industry professionals for those writers ready for publication. Take advantage of the posted score sheets to see exactly how each entry will be judged, and the formatting and writing tips. Polish up that manuscript and enter today!

Also, need a spectacular writing getaway? Check out the intimate, but interactive Crested Butte Writers Conference coming June 17-19th

Stay tuned to Five Scribes for more editor/agent interviews.