Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Between Motion and Rest

Christmas has slipped past, and many of my friends are lighting their second or third candle. So it’s officially vacation down time, after the gift exchange energy high and into the warm thoughtful days. But we are also rushing toward New Year’s Day, an annual time of introspection and planning which energizes us thinking of the future. So, what do you call that space between motion and rest?

This is the time we at Intrigue Publishing re-evaluate our business plan. Does our mission statement still clearly define our actual objective? Does our slogan (Writing that CAN’T be ignored) say the right thing? And have we clearly defined our genres so that authors know what to submit, and so that readers know what to expect when they pick up a book from Intrigue Publishing     

How aggressively will we move more deeply into audio books, foreign rights, mass market paperbacks and other alternative income streams? Seeking out additional forms of publishing is expensive but can be the best way to serve our authors.

Is it wise to contract for series books as opposed to stand-alones? Can we build enough of an audience for one novel that they are eager to come back for more?

Do we want to attract a greater number of submissions? And if so, how long before we get swamped? Each manuscripts deserves due consideration. We never want to risk short changing a great book.

How much energy do we want to devote to hand sales events and conferences. These can be costly gambles but they do promote our brand and thus, our authors.

And speaking of our authors, to what extend do we want to tie them in to our marketing efforts?  How can we best help them to make connections with book clubs around the country? Which social media efforts, giveaways, or contests will pay off for us all?

And there are purely administrative considerations. Can we refine our processes for calculating royalties, acquiring copyrights, maintaining the necessary tax records, capturing expenses and tracking sales (paper and the multiple ebook outlets)?

So in this ethereal space in between motion and rest, we here at Intrigue Publishing are putting a magnifying glass on our business plan and everything we do to try to find the best way to support our authors while bring the best possible novels to market.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Eternal Question: What to Read Next

If you’re an avid reader, eventually you will come to a point when you become so aware of the broad ocean of published books in the universe that you may find yourself paralyzed by indecision. You want to read them all but can really only work on one at a time. From this vast collection of literature, how do you decide what to read next? I know that feeling. Let me suggest that the selection process should be based on some simple questions.

What do I want to read? – What genres appeal to you? Maybe you’re a big-time mystery reader but you’ve wondered about sci-fi. This might be the time to give the new genre a spin.

Who do I want to read? – What authors have you enjoyed before? Maybe they have more books out there and a writer you’ve already liked is always a good bet.

Is there an unfinished series in your past? – Just about every fiction genre has notable series If you’ve read one or two and liked them, it might be fun to get the whole list and read thru the series. (If you choose the Hannibal Jones Mysteries or Stark & O’Brien thrillers message me and I’ll give you the list in order.)

What do you like to do? – many books may feature characters who share your hobbies or interests. Take a walk through your local library’s catalog using your hobby as a keyword and you may turn up some books you’ll enjoy.

What do you already have? – When I can’t decide on my next read I always review my own stacks. Sometimes I find a book I’d completely forgotten I had. That’s always a happy discovery, since I’ve already paid for that one.

What are others reading? – If your friends are readers you can usually get great recommendations from them. (If your friends are NOT readers, you need to find new friends.) Reading a book after a friend, sibling or parent read it has the hidden advantage of creating a great conversation starter and possibly greater bonding. (“What? You liked that one too? Who was your favorite character?)

What’s selling? – Stuck for the next good read I may check the USA Today or New York Times bestseller list. Sometimes I want to read the books that are making headlines just so I’m in the know. At the very least it helps you know what’s hot in popular culture.

Answering these questions should lead you to some great reads.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Best Gifts for Book Lovers

This is the time of year when most of us begin the search for the perfect present. Today I’ll try to make it easier, at least for the avid readers on your list.

Naturally, I think the best gift for anyone is one of my novels. But what if your friend has already read all my books? The next step is a web site called Heavy.com. They’ve listed what they believe are the Top 10 Best Christmas Gifts for Book Lovers - starting with a cool shirt that proudly proclaims: “If I Can’t Take My Book I’m Not Going.”

But what if you have eleven friends?  Buzzfeed is there for you with a list of 24 Insanely Clever Gifts for Book Lovers. I don’t know how insane they are, but I’m crazy about those floating bookshelves.

Amongst all these ideas don’t forget that books themselves are idea for under the tree or in a big stocking. They’re easy to wrap, inexpensive to mail (use media mail) and never go out of style. Plus there are no wires, no batteries are needed and there are no small pieces to pose a threat to small children.

The only time books might NOT be perfect is if your friends are authors themselves. That big stack of great ideas previously listed are mostly good for writers too, but if all else fails you can always turn to Amazon.  You can search just about anything and they’ll gather the right things for you. I searched for “Gifts for Writers” and got several pages of cool options including a Writer’s Emergency Pack and a coffee mug that says, “Please Do Not Annoy the Writer, she may put you in a book and kill you.”

Finally, remember that you don’t need to spend a dime to give your published writer friends a wonderful gift. There’s nothing they’ll appreciate more than a nice review of their work, posted on Amazon or Goodreads. They’ll feel the love from that gesture as much as from anything you can wrap and put under their tree.

Monday, November 21, 2016

6 Things This Small Press is Thankful For

As we slow things down for Thanksgiving week I want to express my appreciation for some of the people that keep our business moving forward and growing. This is what we at Intrigue Publishing are truly thankful for.

Our talented authors: Let’s face it, nothing happens until someone writes a great book. We read a lot of manuscripts and we never publish a book we just like or think is good. We have to be excited about that story, those characters and the prose style that brings it all together. Not every book we’ve published has become a big seller, but that hasn’t stopped us from loving every one. We have been privileged to read so many great books created by so many hugely talented writers.

A spectacular editor: Almost every book we’ve published has been touched by Melanie Rigney, a fine writer herself who brings a lot more than a finely honed sense of what makes a good and commercial novel. Melanie has a way of making a writer understand that she loves their book almost as much as they do, even as she explains in clear plain language how to make that good book into a great one. Several authors have thanked us for having Melanie help them refine both their book and their ability to write.

An amazing proofreader: commas go inside the quotation marks, a character’s hair should stay the same color throughout the book, and the Marine Corps emblem has a fouled anchor, not a fowled anchor (yep, that one was me.) Cynthia Lauth has one of the sharpest eyes in the business and she has saved us from uncounted moments of embarrassment. If you see a mistake in one of our books it is sure because for some reason we chose to ignore her input.

Phenomenal cover artists: No matter how great a book is, no one is going to pick it up to look inside unless the cover grabs them. Like any publisher we’ve made the occasional false start but in the end we’ve ended up with some incredibly good book covers – the kind other authors compliment us on. In particular Paul at Iconix has helped to create our thriller brand (check the new covers of the Stark & Obrien series) and Ryan Anderson (Look at the replacement cover of our new romance title THE INHERITANCE) knows how to make readers want to check a story out. Both these talents are able to create commercial work that doesn’t look like everyone else’s. We are so grateful to have found them.

A fabulous distributor:  It took us three years to establish ourselves well enough to be accepted by a national book distributor and how lucky we are that we found Small Press United (SPU) This  subsidiary of the Independent Publishers Group (IPG) does more than push our books into bookstores across the continent. We have learned so much from their connections with the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), the publishing industry's leading educational organization. And their sales force has offered valuable feedback about how titles, cover art and other factors impact their ability to place our books in stores. They are in large part the reason three of our titles are on IPG's bestseller lists this week. Like the people listed above, SPU is a valued partner that helps us move from success to success.
READERS: Despite the horror stories we all read at the turn of the century, people do still read books! And we are very thankful for every person who has ever purchased one of our novels. We are even MORE thankful for all those who have emailed or tweeted feedback to us, and those who have taken the time to post a review on Amazon or Goodreads. YOU are the people we do it all for, and if we give you a couple of hours of joy, of thrills, of intrigue, then we can feel that we did your job! So THANK YOU for reading. You are also our partners in this grand enterprise and we are eternally thankful for all the people we are connected to through the act of publishing what we hope are some of the most enjoyable novels you’ve ever read.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What's next for Ebooks?

At one time a lot of people I knew thought that ebooks would replace paper books completely. While I still see no sign of that ever happening, it is true that ebook have the potential to evolve in ways that our beloved dead tree editions can’t, and can offer new marketing options as well. In so doing they may find new audiences.
For example, a company called Neoglyphic Entertainment has created a platform that lets publishers create enhanced multimedia ebooks. The idea is to enhance the book’s storytelling capacity. Will motion graphics and a musical score improve the reading experience?  Could be. At the very least I think a lot of people will want to give it a try. 
It’s true that enhanced e-books and apps with sound and video have not been well received by readers in the past, but Neoglyphic has assembled focus groups to help direct their efforts to create new experiences around traditional storytelling. The company plans to offer its multimedia platform as a for-pay service to publishers. As a demonstration they published Sunborn Rising: Beneath the Fall, an illustrated middle grade fantasy series. The series (in Kindle but also hardcover and trade paperback) follows an elf-like civilization facing environmental doom. 

In other news, Indie authors who use Smashwords to distribute their ebooks may want to check their new service – Smashwords Alerts. This service automatically lets readers know about new releases from their favorite authors. To track an author, readers just go to the author profile page at Smashwords and click the button labeled, "Subscribe to Author Alerts."  When the author releases a new book, readers will receive an alert. If a book is on preorder, readers will receive the alert the day the book goes on sale. And Smashwords says they maintain a strict email privacy policy, so readers’ email addresses remains private and are never shared with anyone. 
To get the most out of the new feature, writers would encourage their readers to subscribe to alerts so they never miss another new release.  Authors can track the number of subscribers and "favorites" in real time from the Smashwords Dashboard. 
Ebooks may or may not be the future of reading, but they do offer more options in presentation and marketing than any other publishing choice.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Case of the Vanishing Detectives

When I decided to write a hardboiled detective series I did what most fiction writers do.  I set out to explore my detective’s predecessors, the characters he’d be compared to when he made his appearance.

That turned out to require a lot less time than I expected it to.  As a hardboiled detective with an African heritage, Hannibal Jones turned out to have few predecessors.  The best known black mystery characters, chronicled by Walter Mosley, James Patterson, Chester Himes and Hugh Holton, are policemen or amateur sleuths. 

So where are all the men of color following in Phillip Marlowe’s gumshoe footsteps?  Ed Lacy introduced the first credible African-American private eye, Toussaint Moore, in 1957.  He won an Edgar, but no one followed his
lead.  I assumed that John Shaft would turn the tide when he appeared in 1971.  Ernest Tidyman's Harlem private eye was so hardboiled that at the time my friends and I jokingly referred to him as “Sam: Spade Detective.” Yet despite his film success, there was no rush of imitators.  All the African American private eyes seem to have vanished mysteriously.

I can hear all the Caucasian authors out there now, shaking their heads and muttering, “Don’t blame me.”  Well, why not?  African American authors write white characters all the time, so why not reverse that spin.  And white authors don’t seem to have any trouble writing black characters as sidekicks, or villains.  Why not write them as detectives?

Of course, there is the danger of stereotyping.  Your ethnic readers will look very closely at any characters you introduce who don’t look like you.  So how do you get it right when you’re writing about people from another race and culture?  Here are three hints that will help you.

Observe:  spend time in the grocery stores, restaurants and bars filled with mostly faces of color.  Don’t worry, no one will assault you as long as you mind your own business.  And by listening closely you’ll get a feel for the attitudes and interests of that group, not to mention their food and drink preferences. You will also develop a feel for the rhythm of language and common phrases they use.  I’ve found this works for Latin, Korean and Iranian characters too.

Avoid dialect:  When we change the way words are spelled to imitate the sound of someone’s voice we not only insult them, we make it harder for readers to get through our writing.  All you need to do to get the dialog perfect is to use the words your characters would use in their own unique order.  Your reader will “hear” what you meant, be it North Dakota Swedish or inner city black.

Get a reality check: First, make a black friend.  Next, have that friend read your work and beg them to be honest in their feedback.  Watch their face as they read.  Ask them to test the dialog aloud, and listen for changes they may make unconsciously.  If your friend balks at something, don’t debate it, change it.

The most important thing, of course, is to remember that we are all more alike than different.  Human motivations, desires, fears and joys are universal, so make sure your black characters are first and foremost human. 

And in case you’re skeptical about writing a black detective, you should know that Toussaint Moore’s creator, Ed Lacy, was actually a white guy named Leonard Zinberg.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

8 Ways to turn up the suspense in your fiction

After sharing theory and concept, I figured I should share a few actual tips on how to keep the suspense building when you write. So here we go.

1. Let the characters tell readers their plans. That doesn’t mean give away all the secrets.  It means show the reader the characters’ agenda.  Readers know something will go wrong because they know, on some level, that the story is about conflict. A bad guy hiding in the bushes is creepy, but how much stronger that scene would be if earlier we heard the good guy tell his girl, “I’ll meet you by the bushes at 6 o’clock.” Now we’re not only worried about him getting jumped, we also get to worry that she’ll see it, or that she might be the next victim.

2. Cut down on the violence.  If you read my thrillers you might be surprised at how few actual fights there are. I think the more violence there is, the less it will mean.  That’s why we don’t see all the fights Rocky has to go thru to get into the position to face Apollo Creed. 

3. Always be one step ahead of your readers. As you write, keep asking yourself what your reader is hoping for or wondering about each point in the story. Your job is to give them what they want, when they want it – or maybe a little later than they want it – or to add a twist so you give them more than they bargained for. How do you do that?

4. As you develop your story, appeal to readers’ fears and phobias. Phobias are irrational fears. To be afraid of a tarantula is not a phobia, but to be afraid of all spiders is. Most people are afraid of helplessness in the face of danger. Many are afraid of needles, the dark, drowning, heights and so on. Think of the things that frighten you most, and you can be sure many of your readers will fear them as well.

5. Be sure to describe the setting of your story’s climax before you reach that part of the story. This is necessary to protect your pacing. So let someone visit it earlier and foreshadow everything you’ll need for readers to picture the scene when the climax arrives. Otherwise you’ll end up stalling out the story to describe the setting, when you should be pushing through to the climax.

6. Countdowns. Countdowns and deadlines can be helpful, but can work against you if they don’t feed the story’s escalation. For example, having every chapter of your book start one hour closer to the climax is a gimmick that gets old after a while because it’s repetitious and predictable—two things that kill escalation. Instead, start your countdown in the middle of the book. To escalate a countdown, shorten the time available to solve the problem.

7. Isolate your main character.  As you rush toward the climax, remove his tools, escape routes and support system (helpers and defenders). This forces him to become self-reliant and makes it easier for you to put him at a disadvantage in his final confrontation with evil.

8. Make it personal.  Don’t just have a person get abducted—let it be the main character’s son. Don’t just let New York City be in danger—let grandma live there.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Top 10 Reasons to Attend the Creatures, Crimes and Creativity Con

It has become an annual tradition! Every year at this time my blog is dedicated to explaining why every writer, aspiring author and avid van should be attending the Creatures, Crimes & Creativity (C3) Con this year. The C3 Con is the Mid-Atlantic’s book lover event of the year. And this year, we have two international bestselling authors as keynote speakers. But that’s only the beginning.

We draw readers AND writers of genre fiction: horror, mystery, thriller, suspense, science fiction, fantasy and paranormal authors will gather in Columbia MD, Sep. 30-Oct 2. 

So let’s count down the top ten reasons for attending the C3 Con:

#10 – FELLOWSHIP: Imagine being surrounded by avid readers and excellent writers for an entire 3-day weekend!

#9 – REED FARREL COLEMAN: Author of the heralded Moe Prager series and Jesse Stone novels, he’s been called our noir poet laureate. He’ll give a keynote address at dinner and teach a class.

#8 – ALEXANDRA SOKOLOFF: Known for her Huntress/FBI thrillers, her smooth blend of paranormal and crime fiction is some of the most original and unnerving work around. She will give the other dinner keynote talk and offer a one-woman class on writing for the screen.

#7 - MEALS: The registration fee ($275) includes five meals: Friday’s dinner, 3 meals Saturday and Sunday breakfast, so readers and writers dine side-by-side. One day registrations are available too, and that day's meals are included.

#6 - PANELS: Readers and fans will enjoy 36 panels and presentations from favorite authors, including the keynotes and local guests Donna Andrews (mystery) and Cerece Rennie Murphy (science fiction.)

#5 - GOODY BAGS - Each attendee will receive one filled with cool stuff, including free books (from Mulholland Books, Stark House Press, authors Alan Orloff and Debbi Mack, ) magazines (like Mystery Scene and Writers Digest,) our exclusive anthology filled with stories written by attending authors, and a flash drive from Smashword pre-loaded with ebooks.

#4 - TWITTER CONTEST: the attendee who tweets the most leading up to C3 using our hashtag (#MDC3Con) will get a new Kindle Fire.

#3 - FOR AUTHORS: EXPOSURE: Published authors get to spend time with their fans, and to expose new readers to their writing by presenting on one or two of the 36 panels. Their name and a link are posted on the C3 website.  And they will be pictured in the C3 program book. 

#2 - BOOK SIGNINGS: Novel Books provides an on-site bookstore and hosts two giant book signings, open to the public, featuring all the attending authors and their books. This is how people who don't actually attend can enjoy the C3 Con, both Friday and Saturday from 5pm to 6pm.

And the #1 best reason to attend the Creatures, Crimes & Creativity Con: BE A STAR: The Baltimore County library will shoot a video interview for as many authors as they have time for, and Diana Belchase will be there in person taping for a segment of her show, Book Smart TV!

You can still register, and get more details, at http://creaturescrimesandcreativity.com

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Keep Them in Suspense III

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about suspense, the element that can make or breaks the end of your story. To give your story a truly satisfying climax, you need to escalate the tension. You can raise the stakes by making the danger more imminent, more intimate, more personal or more devastating. For one familiar example, if the shire is at risk in the first film, the world better be in danger at the end of the trilogy.  If the tension doesn’t escalate, your suspense will fade.

One technique to keep the tension high is to give us more promises and less action.  Suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences, in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.

If readers complain that “nothing is happening” in a story, they don’t usually mean no action is happening.  It usually means no promises are being made. Contrary to what you may have heard, reader boredom isn’t solved by adding action – the solution is to add apprehension. Suspense is anticipation; action is the payoff. You don’t increase suspense by adding events, but rather by promising that something will happen.  So don’t ask yourself, “What needs to happen?” Ask, “what can I promise will go wrong?”
My favorite scenes in the Star Wars movies grow from one inspired bit of dialog.  Han Solo looks around and says…”I got a bad feeling about this.”  Actually, five different characters say that in the series but only Han Solo says it twice.

When Scarlett swears she’ll never be hunger again, or Marley tells Scrooge he’ll be visited by three ghosts, a promise has been made.

Suppose a jilted lover in a romance says something like, “if I can’t have her nobody will.” Maybe he hides in the bushes until his rival shows up. The bad guy pulls his knife. The good guy looks around, looks right at the bush but doesn’t see the bad guy hidden there.  He turns his back to the bad guy...
Milk that moment. That’s the suspense.

But make sure that eventually you show us what happens in front of that bush. You have to keep every promise you make.  And the bigger the promise, the bigger the payoff has to be.  A huge promise without the fulfillment isn’t suspense—it’s disappointment. That’s why Frodo can’t simply pull off the ring and toss it, and Rocky can’t knock out Appolo Creed with a lucky punch in the third round.
And remember, every word in your story is a promise of some sort.  If you spend three paragraphs describing a woman’s fabulous shoes, those shoes better be vital to the story. The cliché is, if you show me a gun on the mantle in chapter 2, somebody better darned well aim that thing at someone before the books’ over.

Stories sometimes fail because writers don’t make big enough promises, or they don’t fulfill them. Don’t let that happen to you.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Keep Them in Suspense II

Last week we talked about the importance of creating suspense in fiction. Because I think that applies to all genres it only makes sense to say that there are different types of suspense.

The most common kind of suspense is probably “will the hero accomplish his major goal?”  That can take different forms based on the genre you write in.  In a mystery, where the violence usually takes place before the protagonist is involved, the question may be “who done it?”  You maintain suspense there by keeping your villain one step ahead of your detective, and your reader.  In a thriller the reader may be anticipating the antagonist accomplishing his goal so the question is “how can this impending crisis or crime be averted.”  The reader might know about dangers the protagonist doesn’t know about – that in itself creates suspense.  In a horror story the question may be “will the protagonist survive?”  

So as we write, how do we ratchet up the suspense to keep readers on the edge of their seats?  Well, part of this is why we talk about conflict and suspense together.  Because to really create suspense you need to create characters that readers care about, and then put those characters in jeopardy.

Narrative suspense is built out of four parts: reader empathy, impending danger, escalating tension and reader concern – or as i call it: worry.

We create reader empathy by giving your protagonist a goal or objective or an inner struggle that readers can identify with. The more they empathize the better.  Once they care about and identify with a character, readers will be personally invested when they see that character struggling to get what he wants.

We want readers to worry about whether or not the character will succeed.  Readers have to know what the character wants so they know what’s at stake, and they have to know what’s at stake to get engaged in the story. So, to get readers invested in your novel, make it clear what your character desires, what is keeping him from getting it; and what huge, horrible consequences he’ll face if he doesn’t get it.

Suspense builds as danger approaches. Readers experience worry when a character they care about is in peril. This doesn’t have to be a life-and-death situation. Depending on your genre, the threat may involve the character’s physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or relational well-being. Whatever your genre, show that something terrible is about to happen—then postpone the resolution. That’s how you sustain suspense.

Next week I’ll share some rules for building tension in any story.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Keep Them in Suspense

Suspense is what keeps people turning the pages, no matter what genre of story it is, and since no one wants a reader to put down their book before the end, this seems like a good topic to explore. We writers love to use that word – suspense – but it might also be thought of as frustration.  The reader wants to know something and the writer keep saying, “I’ll tell you in a minute” and by the time that minute is over the story is done. If you write thrillers or that subgenre we call suspense, the word worry might work better.

I first learned about suspense when read the Tarzan novels.  Edgar Rice Burroughs had an interesting technique for holding his readers’ attention.  After the first book the stories involved Tarzan AND Jane.  They always took off on some adventure, and they always got separated. So you might see Tarzan running thru the jungle – he comes face to face with a lion – the lion roars – he pulls his knife.  The lion jumps at him and…

The chapter ends and we’re following Jane.  She’s lost so she climbs a tree.  She finds herself on the limb with a huge snake.  It gets closer.  She’s about to fall out of the tree.  The snake rises up, about to strike and…

The chapter ends. Suddenly we’re watching Tarzan grapple with the lion. And the whole time we’re watching Tarzan, we’re worrying about Jane. As a kid I found this kind of thing very frustrating – but fun. As an adult I learned that people like to be frustrated this way.
More technically, suspense is created by posing a question the reader wants answered.  In my own work i use three different kinds of suspense.  There is “what’s going on here?” suspense.  If you watched the television show Lost, or more recently Colony, you know what that is.  You came back every week trying to figure out what the heck was going on. 

There is also “why is this happening?” suspense.  This is what writers mean when they tell you to start the story in the middle.  Page one opens with someone holding a gun in your hero’s face, saying “This is what happens to people who go poking their noses into my business.” Of course, then the writer has to answer the obvious questions during the action. 

Btw, in my opinion, Stephen King is the best novelist alive and King writes suspense - not horror. Every King novel is a master class on how to write the “why is this happening?” kind of suspense. If you haven’t time to read one of his giant books, Rent the first season of his TV show “Under the Dome.” You’ll get the idea.

We’ll talk about other kinds of suspense, and how to create them, next week.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Conflicting Conflicts

Last time I told you that giving your people more than one conflict helps the reader care about them.  Usually one is more personal than the other, although they can be related. 

In my plot class I talk about the secondary plot. In that context, let’s consider the movie Die Hard.  The big, obvious conflict is between a cop – McLane - who wants to save a group of hostages, and a terrorist whose true objective we don’t get to know until almost the end of the film. But note that McLane is also wrestling with a more personal conflict with his wife and we are not allowed to lose sight of that conflict throughout the film.  It’s easier for us to relate to that more personal objective. That helps us relate to the character.  Just like in Rocky (the example I used in a previous blog) I have never wanted to get punched by a heavyweight champ but HAVE wanted a woman to love and respect me, so that goal helps me relate to the character.

Your protagonist, and maybe your antagonist too, should also have internal conflicts.  It might be okay for your villain to be willing to do whatever it takes to take over the world, get the girl or win the race, but your protagonist should have to consider his response to each challenge on a moral basis.  Sure he can save the hostage by shooting the bad guy in the head, sure he can find the killer by lying to everyone about what he already knows, of course he can get the girl by flattening the other fellow’s tire… but SHOULD he?  Yes, many people like a totally confident protagonist, and your story might work fine without internal conflict… but it will be better with it.

Remember, conflict is about character.  In a good novel, or movie for that matter, the protagonist will grow and change during the story. It is the conflict that makes that change. Overcoming each challenge forces our protagonist to show the strength, or determination, or quick wits we want to see in a heroes, and the challenge the conflicts present force him to change.

And since conflict makes a story, so you need more than just conflict between the primary protagonist and antagonist. There should be some sort of conflict in every scene. What if everyone in the scene agrees on what they want to do? Then they can still disagree on how to do it, or when.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Punch Up Your Writing with Conflict

Last week I talked about the importance of conflict in your fiction.  Conflict, as I stated then, is a function of your characters’ motivations. Your protagonist and antagonist must need to have or do things, and those things must be in conflict. These motivations can appear to be simple at the beginning of your story. The characters may even think so themselves at first.  But you, the writer, need to know the deep down reason why their opposing goals are important to these people before you begin to build your plot. If they don’t care deeply about these goals, your reader won’t care either.  And if only one is deeply invested, readers will wonder why the other one doesn’t just give up.

As an example, let’s consider Rocky – Sylvester Stallone’s first sold script. Yes, it’s a boxing movie, but how much of the film is actual fighting?  That’s good evidence that, as i said earlier, conflict is not violence. What does our protagonist, Rocky, really want in that film? He wants a shot at the title.  Keep that in mind, because his actual objective is important. But he also wants to prove he’s not a loser. And he wants his girl to respect him.

Our antagonist – Apollo – wants to prove once again that he is the best ever. There’s another lesson here: note that the antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain.  He doesn’t have to be evil.  And I prefer stories in which both the protagonist and the antagonist have worthy goals and are both absolutely determined to attain them.

In that context you can see that the plot of the movie is not about who’s the best boxer. It’s all about what Rocky is willing to do to attain his goals.  Each beat in the script is about Rocky facing some obstacle to achieving one of his goals. And really, he’s not particularly good at much of anything.  Consequently, each beat in the film contains a conflict that shows us how badly rocky wants these things he is driven to have. 

To help us care about your protagonist it is good for him or her to face more than one conflict. Next week I’ll talk about how to use multiple conflicts to raise the stakes and strengthen characterization.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

When Conflict is a Good Thing

At the recent writing symposium put on by the Virginia Writers Club I discussed conflict and suspense – two elements i have to lean hard on to create crime fiction. Without conflict, you don't have a story. Conflict drives your story forward. And without suspense, readers have no reason to get to the end of your story. Suspense draws your readers thru the story to a satisfying conclusion.

You may think that the genres I write makes these elements easier to use.  In fact, they apply to all fiction worth reading. But to be clear:  conflict is not violence.  Suspense is not mystery.

Conflict is a function of character.  It’s about human motivations.

Suspense is a function of plot.  It’s about pacing.

Today I’ll talk a little about the use of conflict. Most good stories are driven by some external conflict.  The protagonist – the person we cheer for – needs to do something, go someplace, get something… and the antagonist – the person we boo – has opposing goals.

In a romance, it might be as simple as the leading lady wanting eternal love and the fellow she’s attracted to not wanting to be tied down. In a murder mystery the hero wants to find the killer, and the killer doesn’t want to be found. Most often in thrillers the villain’s objective kicks off the story, and the protagonist’s goal is to stop him from accomplishing that objective.  But one way or another, whatever the goals they are pursuing, they must be very important to both the protagonist and the antagonist – and you have to let your readers know that. 

So before you start plotting your story, decide what it is that your protagonist wants so badly.  Then figure out what all he or she is going to have to do to accomplish that goal.  That effort, after all, is the plot.

Next you need to attach an emotional context to that goal. In other words, why is it so important?  What is this person’s motivation to accomplish this goal? Love is a motivation.  Greed is a motivation. Guilt is a motivation. Fear, envy, jealousy, ambition are all motivations. The need to prove something to yourself or to others is a fine motivation. “it’s my job” is not a very good motivation for your hero. Nor is “because I’m evil” a good motivation for your villain. Dig deeper.

Next week I’LL dig deeper into different kinds of story conflict and offer some good examples to follow. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Verb's the Word

I don’t even know if they still teach parts of speech in grade school anymore, but back in the dark ages when I attended public school it was required learning. Back then they taught me that sentences were all about the noun and the verb, with everything else cast as helpers. And sometimes, those other words don’t help at all. But as a person selecting books for publication, and getting my own work out there, I can say that one of the best ways to upgrade your writing is to upgrade your verbs.

Genre fiction is almost always about the action, one way or another, and that’s what verbs represent. The subject of each sentence, the main noun, is pretty much fixed. How you describe what that person, place or thing is doing is the difference between an interesting statement and a boring one.

The easiest and least interesting verbs to use are forms of the verb to be. You know… it is, you are, they were, etc. Those words simply denote existence, and are almost always the worst choice.

Likewise there are the most common terms for movement that have dozens of cooler synonyms. Like go, for instance.  Sure he went home, and maybe he walked home (better) but he could have run, skipped, raced, sauntered, wandered or found his way home in several other ways. He hit the ball but he could have slammed it, whacked it, clobbered it, smashed it… you get the idea.

Here’s a short paragraph I’ve stolen and re-written from a recent submission we received:

A crystal chandelier was overhead and below, the tile floor was black and white.  Fresh sunflowers sat on a tea table in the center and beyond it an oak banister went up a marble treaded staircase. She went from this to Barlow’s I thought, she sure as hell wanted out.

Now that is perfectly serviceable prose, and delivers the message – it’s real nice here but she ran away anyway. BUT here’s what the author really wrote:

A crystal chandelier hung above my head and a black and white tiled floor flowed before me. A tea table in the center held fresh sunflowers and beyond it an oak banister led the way up a marble treaded staircase. From this to Barlow’s I thought, she sure as hell wanted out.

I hope you can feel the difference. This is not purple prose, not flowery or wordy. But by choosing better verbs she has made the descriptive passage much more inviting.

So after you’ve laid down your first draft go back and stare at every verb to see if a stronger one is available. This will also help you to eliminate adverbs (helpers that don’t really help your writing) and even prompt you to occasionally slip in a better noun. SO, did she speak softly, or did she whisper? Did the light shine brightly or did it glimmer? And did you write that passage succinctly or did you compose some terse, pithy prose?  

Sunday, July 24, 2016


In May of 2012 my two partners and I officially incorporated - we formed Intrigue Publishing LLC and nothing has been the same since. Going into business changed not only our lives but the lives of the dozen authors we have signed contracts with (aside from me of course.) It is amazing how much has changed in that time.

We started with a focus on four genres and that hasn't changed, but received submissions have varied a lot. We've gotten a mountain of crime fiction manuscripts and published a few. Death and White Diamonds has won two conference awards so far. Likewise, we've seen a pretty good stack of Young Adult tales and put some fine ones out. I can't explain why Girl Z: My Life as a Teenage Zombie (our content editor's favorite Intrigue book to date) is not a best seller. It's a fabulous, well written tale. On the other hand the equally wonderful Y-A The Boy Who Knew Too Much won an award at the Love is Murder Writers Conference. 

On the other hand, we have yet to receive a contemporary drama manuscript we like enough to put out there next to B. Swangin Webster's Let Me Just Say This and its sequel, Let Me Say This Again. And we had been in business for three years before we got a romance we loved enough to publish. This fall Center Courtship and The Inheritance will explode onto the scene (at least, I think they will.) In all the genres we cover, we are determined to publish Writing That Can't Be Ignored.

We went into this business thinking we'd move a ton of ebooks and that if we called enough bookstores we could get our books onto the shelves one store at a time. Ebook sales have not been what we expected but now we have an arrangement with Small Press United (a subsidiary of Independent Publishers Group) who have people who call bookstores to get books onto shelves. We've recently been able to pay someone to call bookstores to set up book signings, allowing us to put new authors on limited, local tours. Liza Brown, author of Center Courtship, already has three book events  - two at Barnes and Nobles stores - for her book which we will release September 15.

From the beginning we have sent books to all the major reviewers hoping they'd notice us. It has been a steep hill but we've made progress bit by bye. The aforementioned Center Courtship is our first title accepted for review at Publishers Weekly. BTW, Jacqueline Seewald, author of The Inheritance, has previously been reviewed by PW so we're optimistic about a repeat.

From the start we have endeavored to behave like the big guys: pay advances and royalties, promote our authors, work to sell other rights, publish award winning books, etc. So far, I think we've earned a reputation as a legitimate, professional and author-friendly house. I'm probably inordinately proud of that.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Windup… And The Pitch

As I write this I’m halfway through a great weekend at the Public Safety Writers Assoc. Conference. I’m here as both a writer AND publisher, so I have had the pleasure of taking pitches from other writers. Some of those pitches were excellent, but on a panel I was asked what makes a good pitch. Since it’s fresh in my mind, I’ll share that information here too.

First, please don’t bring a manuscript. Or a printed synopsis. Or anything else for me to read. You want me listening to you, not reading while you talk. In fact, there’s no need to hand me anything except a business card if you have one.

It’s good to start with your elevator pitch. That’s something you should already have in your arsenal – a 30-second response to the question, “What’s your book about?” It’s the plot of your novel, boiled down to its basic essence. And don’t read to me. You should know your own book well enough to lay it out for me. Do practice what you want to say. You should be able to do this in a relaxed manner without stumbling and stuttering.

Next, tell me the basics I want to know to eliminate the most obvious possible objections: the genre, the length, the fact that it is finished, Tell me who the intended audience is. If you can compare your story to another popular novel, or compare your protagonist to another fictional hero, do so. That tells me you’re familiar with your market.

Then, tell me a little about yourself. If there is a reason you’re uniquely qualified to write this book (A SWAT team member writing about a SWAT team, for example) let me know. If you have prior published works, tell me so. Have you won writing awards? Been blurbed by a big name? Share that stuff. And if you have any natural platform tell me what that is.

All that will take surprisingly little time but when you’ve gotten this far, it’s time to be quiet. I’ll have questions, and want more detail on some of these points. I might ask about your protagonist, or why you wrote this particular story or what you’re working on next. The point is, stop pitching when you’ve finished your pitch and let me ask what I want to know. With luck, our conversation will end with me asking you to send me a synopsis and some chapters.

And yes, I am expecting several submissions from the current Con.  

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Submitting To A Small Press

As the editorial director of a small press - Intrigue Publishing - I’ve learned that there are many misconceptions about who we are, what we do and most importantly, how to work with us. I’d like to try to clarify some of that confusion.

Our relationship with any author begins with a manuscript submission so let’s start with how that goes. We don’t have pre-readers – all the principals of the company will read your book before we make an offer. Our acquisition process considers three things: you, your story and your writing.

Because we’re a genre fiction house any manuscript we are attracted to must have a good (read interesting) story. Often a well written synopsis will reveal that. Like many small presses we specialize in specific genre: crime fiction, family drama, romance and young adult. If your story doesn’t fit into one of those categories it doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s not for us. And note our name – we are looking for stories with intrigue! It’s hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Generally our President, Denise, determines if the story is for us. If she says yes, the book comes to me.

As the Editorial Director I focus on the writing. But before I evaluate the prose I evaluate the submission. Did the author read and follow our submission guidelines? Like many small presses we specify the font, size and margins we want. I look to see if the header is what I want, if the pages are numbered, if it’s double spaced. If your manuscript doesn’t look professional, and if you didn’t follow our submission guidelines, I may never read any of your prose. If I do, I’ll evaluate the strength of your writing. Have you mastered the basics of spelling, grammar and sentence construction? How well do you handle pacing, conflict, tension, suspense and character development? Does your story have a nice hook at the start and build to a big and satisfying finish? At the end I ask myself “Was it fun?”

If I love it, it goes to Sandra, our Marketing Director. She will read it with a different consideration – can we sell this story? Do we know how to market it and who to market it too? If her answer is yes (and she loves the read too) she’ll go to the internet looking for you. We need to know if you have a platform – a group of people already predisposed to want your book when it comes out. AND, do you know how to make friends and get them on your side? She’ll look for a web site, Facebook page, Twitter feed, and a blog. She’ll want to see if you’re engaging, and even more important, do you post frequently? A web site advertising events that happened a year ago is worse than no site at all. The same goes for a Facebook page that you haven’t posted on in a couple of weeks.      

If we love your story, love your writing, believe we can do you justice marketing it, and believe you’ll work with us to make your book as good as it can be and get it into the hands of readers, you’ll get an offer from us. I’ll talk about what that’s like next week. 

Saturday, July 2, 2016


We’ve been discussing publishing choices: do you submit to a major publisher, talk to a small press, or self-publish. Before you decide you need ask yourself what’s important to you.

Are you a control freak? If you are lucky enough to get a contract with a big publisher, know that you will surrender almost all control of the final product. I’ve had authors tell me that they hated the cover of their book when it came out, or the title the publisher chose, or that it was being labelled with the wrong genre. Small presses vary, but almost always you’ll get to at least discuss important choices. If you self-publish you will have control of every bit of your published book.

Are you in a hurry? With today’s technology you can self-publish a book in a matter of weeks. Major publishers can often take two years to get your book into stores. Small presses vary a lot in this regard, but I think one year is about the longest you’re likely to have to wait.

Do you understand the rights? Aside from hardcover and paperback, your story might work as excerpts, audio, ebook, or even a movie. All these options can be sold differently. Major publishers will want to own all those rights, plus foreign sales rights and probably a few more that I can’t think of right now. This is the real value of an agent – they will negotiate which rights you give up. On the other hand, a small press probably won’t ask for the rights they don’t know how to take advantage of. We at Intrigue Publishing don’t buy film rights because we don’t have the connections to market your book properly to that industry. Of course, if you self-publish you keep ALL the rights to your property, so if someone wants to make a movie from your novel they deal directly with you.

And how will people find your book? The big publishers have excellent distribution set up, to push their books into lots of bookstores across the country and many ebook outlets. Small presses don’t usually have the level of distribution the big guys have. And if you choose to self-publish you will find it very hard to get your book onto bookstore shelves outside your immediate area. Remember, not everyone buys their books from Amazon. So if you want to be widely known, this might be a consideration for you.

And finally, are awards important to you? Many major book awards are only available to books published by major publishers. Small presses can submit you to many but not all of them. And self-published authors are still blocked from some of the most coveted awards.

One final word: Your choice doesn’t have to be exclusive. You can submit one book to publishers while self-publishing another. You can submit to large publishers and if you have no luck turn to smaller ones. Just know the differences, and do what’s best for you.