Tuesday, July 26, 2011

New Release: "Talbot's Ace" by Diane Whiteside in Improper Gentlemen

Good news, Diane Whiteside fans: Improper Gentlemen, a collection of three historical romance short stories, is now available! The anthology includesTalbot's Ace, a new, steamy, old-west story by Diane Whiteside.

He rules Colorado's most glittering, anything-goes gambling palace. And Just Talbot never does something for nothing. But if daring Boston aristocrat Charlotte Morland needs his protection from a dangerous enemy, he'll have no choice but to make her business his pleasure...

Pick up or download a copy today!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Finding Themselves

I want to talk about characters today. Another intern wrote a post on characters a few months ago, and I agree with everything she said, but I want to talk a little bit more specifically about developing characters. For me, the characters are the most important part of the story (of course, different people have different opinions, but this is mine). A plot can be mediocre (I’d rather it not be, of course, but it can be forgiven) if the characters are excellent. When I write, I almost always start a story because I have a new character I want to write about, and then the plot develops around them (plotting is generally my least favorite part of writing). This is largely why dialogue is something I harp on so much, because the way someone talks is so integral to who they are.

For example, in my recent blog post on dialogue, I wrote up a couple of short example conversations between the characters David, Jane and Jared. These conversations were completely random and on-the-spot, and the names were just the first that popped into my head. But since then, I’ve found myself thinking about them more than I expected to. Just based on those conversations, I already know that the three of them are deep into something, probably trying to scam someone (for some reason what I’m picturing is something about an inheritance, but I also don’t think the three are siblings). It’s also clear that David and Jane are doing something behind Jared’s back. Part of me keeps wondering what the story is, because I’ve inadvertently created characters that interest me.

You should know your characters intimately, in and out of the situations of the story. You should know all sorts of random details that may never actually come into play in your actual story, because the more you know (even random, apparently pointless things) the better you will be able to predict what your character would do in a certain situation. As the other intern mentioned, you should know what you characters were like as children, what they think about before going to sleep, etc.

A good number of you probably already do stuff like this, but for those of you who have trouble breaking away from the plot, here’s my advice. I like to do character development exercises—my favorites are the ones that are lists of questions. You can find any number of these online. They ask things like “What does your character wish for when they blow out their birthday candles?” “What are three bad habits your character has?” and “What is your character’s worst fear?” (I had no idea one of my characters was deathly afraid of fire until I came across that question. Once I realized it (and realized that, being who he was, he would never admit it to anyone), my storyline opened up considerably). Sometimes you have to modify the questions to make them fit your character (if you have a character that’s an orphan living in the woods in a fantasy world (like me), clearly she never blew out birthday candles. But if she could wish for something, what would it be?). But that’s okay, that’s just more information to work with. Also, sometimes the questions just make you go “of course!” even if you already know your character really well. For instance, the bad habits question: “he smokes- it’s the twenties!” It was so obvious, but it’s not necessarily something I would have thought about enough to include, and it can make all the difference. It’s the little details that make a scene. And a character.

My favorite question is “What is your character’s worst nightmare?” Whenever I answer this question, I answer it literally. I write out the actual nightmare, from the first-person point of view of that character (even if the manuscript itself isn’t from that character’s point of view—it’s helpful to get into each character’s head a bit). Of course, everyone has their own methods, but I’ve had quite a lot of fun with that question, and learned quite a bit about my own characters at the same time.

Sometimes helping a character find themselves is more important than you realize. Maybe a minor character isn’t so minor after all (I would recommend doing these types of exercises for lots of characters, not just the main ones). Maybe a piece of your main character’s past is going to change the whole story. When it comes down to it, I think the main message is don’t be so glued to your plot that you suffocate your characters. If you let them be themselves, chances are your story will improve.

All for now!


Tuesday, July 12, 2011


So today I read an article (well, a mini-article) in the Washington Post Express that bothered me a lot, and it tied into a post I wrote on here before, so I thought I'd share.

It wasn't the article itself that bothered me--it was about a man in Qatar that is trying to breed Spix's macaws (the world's rarest species of parrot, I believe) in order to release some back into the wild, because there are no known specimens still living in the wild (and only 76 in captivity, according to the Express)(have you guys seen the recent cartoon movie Rio? The "Blue Macaw" is modeled after the Spix's macaw). This, in itself, is fantastic. As a parrot lover, I'm gung-ho for saving and reintroducing species.

The article had a picture underneath it. It was the back view of a macaw with its wings spread. Now, I'm sure there are only a few Express readers who would have noticed this, but working in a pet store (a privately owned pet store where the employees actually know what they're talking about, thank you) and knowing a fair amount about parrots in particular, I noticed something.

The bird pictured is not a Spix's Macaw. It is a Blue and Gold macaw.

Since I'd just recently written up a whole post about authors doing their research, and how they can't expect the readers to not know more than them, this bothered me even more than it normally would.

I talked to my co-worker from the pet store, and she said she had read the original, long-version article in the Washington Post proper (in fact, our boss had brought it in for the employees to read), and it had a correct picture. Which, to me, makes this even worse. Now it's not even an issue of not knowing, it's just being lazy. What this says to me is that the Express just didn't want to go through the trouble of getting the rights to an actual picture, so took a photo stock picture of a somewhat nondescript macaw (like I said, it's the back view; I only noticed because it's the wrong color blue for a Spix's, and last time I checked Spix's don't have yellow legs) and assumed it would suffice. It's an article about parrots, it's a picture of a parrot; close enough. (I have to make a disclaimer here and say that, not being a Post or an Express employee, I don't actually know what happened and clearly can't make any official statements about it.) But my personal opinion is that they should get their facts straight. To me, a picture of the wrong bird is misleading and not close enough, especially when the article is so specific to one species. I expect more from a reputable source like the Post.

You can't assume your readers don't know more than you.

I like the Washington Post, and the Express. But issues like this lower my opinion of them.

SO the point of all this was to say "See?" and underline my point about doing your research. It is definitely worth the effort, even if only a few people are going to notice. The person that notices might just be someone that's going to write a blog post about it.

Your neighborhood nit-picker,

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Dialogue: Let's be real. Part II

I don't mean to harp, but I have more to say about dialogue, and a few of you seemed to like my post on the subject before, so by George I'm gonna say it.

Remember when I said that readers are smart? Readers can figure it out? It's true, I promise. I read way too many things where the author is trying desperately to make absolutely sure the reader knows what's going on. While I'm sure the reader appreciates the thought, it's often not necessary. Specifically, I mean overuse of dialogue tags and names.

Dialogue tags: some authors want to have a "he said," "she said" after every single thing a character says. Obviously, these tags are necessary sometimes (even lots of times). But if you've started a conversation with your characters, and the words are between quotation marks, we know they've said it. I promise.
"I want to get lunch," Jane said.
"Okay. Where do you want to eat?" David asked.
"Anywhere," she responded.
"How about that new Italian place?" he suggested.
"Sounds good," she agreed.
After we've established that Jane and David are talking (which may have happened before this snippet of conversation--hey, we have no idea what they were doing before I started typing) we really don't need that many tags. The last three lines could easily lose their tags entirely, and the conversation loses nothing.

An instance where frequent dialogue tags are helpful is when there are more than two people talking. Obviously, then we need to know how the conversation is progressing. But even then, you can be creative. Instead of an actual dialogue tag, just move the focus to the character who's speaking.
"I've made some changes," David began, "and I think it should work. But--"
"Can you get it to him tomorrow?" Jared interrupted.
"Then do it."
Jane paced the room, her hands twitching slightly. "But what if he won't sign?"
Thrusting the papers away from him, David sighed and pressed his hands against his eyes. "Then we start from the beginning."
Jared groaned. "Not again!"
There are seven separate instances of people speaking in that conversation, but I only used two actual dialogue tags. And I think it's pretty obvious who's talking throughout.

Names: this one's pretty obvious, I think. But I still see people get hung up on it. Direct conversation by content and context, not by telling us exactly whom the character is addressing. What I mean is, above, David didn't have to say "then we start from the beginning, Jane" for us to know he was answering her. Generally, people only use each other's names when they're trying to get their attention or for emphasis. So if David is really fed up with Jane and Jared's harping by now, and thinks the answer should be obvious, he could say "then we start from the beginning, Jane." But he doesn't need to. I've seen more conversations than I expected to that go something like this:
"What should we do about Jared, Jane?"
"I don't know, David, what do you think?"
"It's up to you, Jane."
Tiring is really the only way to describe it.

I'm not saying you should be Hemingway or anything, here. Dialogue tags and names are good (as it turns out). But like any writing tool, just be careful about how and how often you use them. Yes, we need to know who's talking to whom. But not in every sentence.

Hope this helps and good luck!

New Release: Reconcilable Differences by Elizabeth Ashtree

Prosecutor Gwendolyn Haverty puts bad guys in jail…and keeps them there. That isn't easy when defense lawyers like Aaron Zimmerman try to spring them out again. Zimmerman is a rumpled do-gooder on a mission to free the innocent—which, of course, includes every single one of his clients behind bars!

His latest mission's success depends on convincing Gwen to listen to his witness. Fine. That ten minutes she gives Aaron to plead his case results in a ridiculous cell phone mix-up…and a playdate for their two boys? She's not sure how the line between professional and personal gets blurred so quickly. But it can't happen again. She can't let this man, no matter how compassionate, into her heart.

Elizabeth Ashtree's newest romance is now available from Harlequin. Be sure to pick up a copy!