Posted in creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing tips

Meeting reader expectations

read-515531_1920I’ve been working for a ghostwriting company on the side, doing writer engagement and training, and recently we discussed genre conventions and what readers expect from particular genres. It was a good experience to research the genres we work with, and I wanted to share what I found.

Below are some basic expectations, but I’d love readers to add to this list and/or discuss why these are important to meet when writing.

Religious/Spiritual

  • Focus on an inspirational theme
  • Underlying religious lessons or ethics
  • Encourage spiritual growth
  • Convey lessons about home/family, relationship, faith
  • References to God/God’s plan – few references to Jesus Christ
  • Lack of explicit sexuality – focus on emotion/relationship
  • Moral values, traditional roles
  • More defined framing of gender/gender and femininity/masculinity
  • Character(s) have strong religious convictions, or do by the end
  • Very light or no sexual content

Paranormal/Fantasy

  • Fully developed, realistic-ish world
  • Well-develop creatures that either follow mythology/folklore or are completely new
  • Well-develop system or magic/abilities that either follow mythology/folklore or are completely new
  • An epic journey – actual or self-discovery
  • Unexpected hero/villain dynamic
  • Use of archetypes
  • Romantic relationship with non-human/supernatural beings common

New/Young Adult

  • Unique voice/narration – often goes along with first person perspective
  • Character is in the correct age group (12-18 YA; 18-25 NA)
  • More simplistic prose
  • “Firsts” subject matter/Coming of Age
  • Tough subjects
  • Happy For Now (HFN) endings more common
  • Emotional development themes
  • Focus on the personal rather than the outside world
  • Parents are often absent, MC relies on friends for support

Hands Holding Hearts

Contemporary romance

  • Love is central to the plot, but lust can be the spark
  • Characters overcome problems, HEA ending
  • Full relationship arc – emotional develop is central
  • Modern setting and language
  • Realistic scenarios and outcomes
  • Developed romantic backgrounds
  • Realistic conflict
  • Secondary storylines used
  • Use of “sounding board” characters

Clean romance

  • Sexuality/romance is PG-rated or less
  • Focus is on emotional develop in relationship
  • Little to no sexual overtly thoughts
  • Little to no swearing/cursing
  • Usually no non-realistic elements
  • Usually limited to heterosexual relationships
  • Off-camera sexual encounters debatable
  • Focus on love not lust

Historical romance

  • Details are accurate to the time period
  • Time period is integral to the story
  • Gender roles very important
  • Focus on societal ideals/mores of the time on how it impacts the story
  • Theme is interpreted through the lens of the time period
  • Plot/conflict makes sense for the time period
  • Romantic interactions follow the time period social rules, for the most part

Erotica

  • Sex is central to the plot
  • Romance/relationship development is still important
  • Dynamic characters are a must
  • Typically told from the female’s POV, but not always
  • Graphic descriptions
  • Multiple (more than 2) sex scenes
  • Use of foreplay – descriptive
  • Tension runs throughout the full story
  • Unique tropes not typically covered in other subgenres (menage, BDSM, alphas, etc.)
  • There’s still a line not to cross – rape, incest, abuse, etc.
  • HFN or HEA ending

Romantic suspense

  • Suspense is secondary or equal to romance
  • Source of suspense is resolved by the end
  • Fast-paced plot, high action
  • Source of suspense jeopardizes the romance
  • Realistic details in a modern setting
  • Suspense/danger draws characters together
  • Characters are equally matched, or close to
  • Characters have a believable motivation to be involved in the suspense

Feel free to share any additional genre expectations!

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Posted in books, creative writing, ebooks, romance, writing, writing advice, writing tips

Creating character chemistry

Creating chemistry in romance is important because this is what makes the reader root for the characters to find their happily-ever-after.

How do you create great chemistry?

Portrait of beautiful and fashion model womanCreate strong characters

Strong, interesting characters are key to creating chemistry in romance. If the reader doesn’t like your characters all that much, they won’t care if they end up happy.

This often means getting away from stereotypes and adding more depth to characters. Characters need flaws. Nobody likes the perfect, better-than-everyone-else character. Perfect characters don’t have enough conflict to be interesting. A strong character has strengths and weakness that will play a role in the story and their character development arc.

Create realistic attraction

This doesn’t mean no insta-love ever, especially if that’s going to be a source of conflict later when the character realize love at first sight doesn’t mean no problems, but the reason for their attraction should be believable.

Good looks aren’t enough. Being hot doesn’t prevent a person from being an asshole. Draw from personality, compatibility, intrigue, uniqueness…something that will last and create conflict later in the story.

Depressed woman portrait

Build realistic tension

Tension can come in a variety of ways, including miscommunication, lies, secrets, arguments, moving too fast/slow, etc. The key is for these to be realistic and fit with the overall story.

One rumor that’s never fact-checked or confronted and causes the MC to run away without looking back and fall into utter despair isn’t realistic and tends to frustrate readers. Especially if the MC is an otherwise strong and intelligent person.

If a point of tension can be fixed in less than a paragraph, it probably isn’t complex enough to be believable.

Create high stakes

There should always be something that can completely ruin a relationship, whether it’s developed from page one or a surprise two-thirds of the way through. The risk that everything could fall apart, and both or one of the characters knows this, will affect everything they do and act as a constant reminder to the reader that they shouldn’t assume everything will turn out all right.

8c182-coupleholdinghandsDevelop intimacy

Intimacy doesn’t mean sex, although there’s nothing wrong with sex being part of intimacy. A look or a touch, a meaningful word can build intimacy between characters just as much as physical intimacy. Every time characters are together, give them a moment that notches up their connection in some way.

When characters are not with each other, use internal dialogue, conversations with others, or small reminders/tokens (a piece of clothing or memento left behind) to develop intimacy. Building intimacy should remind the reader of what the characters could be together.

Ride the roller coaster

Chemistry shouldn’t be a straight shot to HEA. Nobody likes another person all the time. Having moments where they dislike a trait or action is realistic and lets the chemistry ebb naturally. A thoughtful or sweet act will bring it back up, maybe even stronger. The give-and-take keeps readers interested and engaged.

Keep the roller coaster ride to a reasonable level that won’t throw readers off the rails. Ups and downs are natural and important in story building. The swings shouldn’t be so drastic you give readers whiplash, though. Keep the chemistry moving in a steady, upward direction toward the climax, with believable bumps and dips along the way.

Character relationships should model reality while still working with in the overall plot to allow character growth and development.

Posted in books, creative writing, ebooks, marketing, publishing, query letter, self publishing, writing, writing advice, writing tips

Writing a blurb that catches reader’s attention

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It’s always a challenge to boil down and entire story into a few hundred words when writing a blurb. Most writers hate this part of publishing. We took all this time developing details and intricacies and now we have to take all of that back out and convince someone to buy it in two paragraphs or less.

How do you do that well?

Here’s a few things I’ve learned over the years.

A blurb is a sales pitch

The first sentence must grab the reader’s attention. Think of this sentence as an elevator pitch. It should capture the most interesting part of the story. That may be the conflict, mystery, romance, etc. Whatever it is that will most make readers want to check out your book, mention it in the first line.

This first sentence often sits by itself before the bulk of the blurb, giving it a better chance to catch the reader’s attention. The preview on most ebook retailers barely gives you more than a sentence or two before readers have to click “read more,” so make that first sentence count.

Format the blurb according to genre conventions

Contemporary romance tends to use short, 1-2 sentence paragraphs that highlight main points of the storyline. Historical romance tends to use longer paragraph with a more in-depth summary of each point of interest. Study blurbs on Amazon in your genre to make sure you’re formatting correctly.

Of course, sometimes you need to break out of conventions and do your own thing. Just make sure there’s a reason for using a unique format and that it conveys the tone or action of your story.

Typewriter illustrationStart with a formula that works

First, introduce the situation, then tell readers about the main problem or source of conflict, and indicate the twist without giving too much away. Effective blurbs often end with a question or with a sentence that sets the overall mood of the story.

Don’t give away the ending. This isn’t a synopsis. It’s a tease.

Leave the side characters out of it

Introduce the main characters and leave the side characters for the reader to discover once they start reading. It’s important to get readers interested in the characters right away. Give their name, a few important traits that make them unique or interesting, what their situation is, and what dilemma or conflict they’re going to face.

Don’t try to introduce side characters in the blurb. It only clutters the pitch and may make readers lose interest.

Use a cliffhanger

This isn’t a must, but for many stories a cliffhanger ending in a blurb will be a good nudge toward purchasing. Avoid giving away too much in a blurb. Present the problem and leave readers wondering how the character will overcome it.

This answer shouldn’t be too obvious, though. Even with books that are more formulaic, it’s important to make the reader curious about how this particular story will unfold. Most romances end in a happily-ever-after scenario, but they don’t all reach it the same way.

Open Blue BookChoose your words carefully

Communicate the tone of the story with words that fit the genre and situation. A dark thriller will use more intense wording while a rom-com will use light, fun words. Word choice should also match the time period and regional setting. It’s also all right to use hyperbole when appropriate, such as “unimaginable” for a shocking crime or “intoxicating” for a sudden and passionate romance, but don’t overdo it.

Keep it short and to the point

Blurbs should run 100-150 words in most cases. Don’t try to tell the reader everything you think might interest them. Stick to the important highlights.

It may be helpful to start writing a blurb with bullet points to sift out what should and shouldn’t be mentioned.

There’s no one correct way to right a blurb that will help sell a book, but starting with proven tactics and expanding from there can help you craft an enticing blurb.

Posted in books, creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Worldbuilding

As writers, we all know how important worldbuilding is when writing fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian.

What about when you’re writing contemporary realistic fiction?

You may not need to create detailed maps or a new social structure when writing about the real world, but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook when it comes to worldbuilding.

What aspects of worldbuilding apply to contemporary realistic fiction?

Creating your own town

Small European TownCreating a fictional town is definitely the most involved type of worldbuilding in contemporary realistic fiction. You’ll draw from real places with the goal of developing something new and interesting. A huge benefit of making up a location is that you aren’t bound by anything. Another benefit is that you won’t spend hours researching a real place and worry about whether you’ve portrayed it correctly. A fictional location allows you to build the exact setting you need to develop your plot and characters.

What should you consider when creating your own town or setting?

What type of location does the storyline call for? Is your character on his own in a big city for the first time? Is she pulled from city life to figure out small-town living? Does the story require seclusion or crowds? How plugged in is your main character? Are they a foodie who loves trying new eateries or someone who loves the familiar?

How do you develop realistic details?

Desert RoadStart off based in reality. For those who’ve watched Twin Peaks and paid attention to the opening credits, the welcome sign claims the town has 51k people, yet everyone knows each other and there seems to be only one restaurant. Take the time to research town sizes and amenities in order to make sure everything lines up.

Check into weather and seasonal changes as well. Summer comes to Phoenix a lot quicker than Montana, BUT if you’ve been living with single digits for six months in Colorado Springs, 35 degrees feels pretty nice and you might see a few pairs of capris or flipflops.

Investigate the demographics, foods, culture, and dialect of your fictional town’s region or state. Just because your town is made up doesn’t mean you can go wild with random details. Ask people around the county how they refer to a carbonated beverage or what toppings they put on a pulled pork sandwich. If you spell chile (the vegetable) with an “I” in the Southwest, you’ll get more than a few eye rolls.

Building a neighborhood

Death_to_Stock_Photography_NYC_Skyline_7Whether you’re creating a fictional town or using a real town, you still need to develop the small-scale details of the neighborhood or apartment building your characters inhabit.

Who else lives here and how do they interact with the main character(s)? What is the overall feel of the area? This is a great place to start developing secondary characters and conflicts. Think about where the neighbors or residents tend to hang out or stop off for a quick conversation or gossip exchange. Is it in the laundry room or by the mailboxes? Does everyone walk to their destinations or is driving necessary? Does the MC want to stay or are they anxious to get out of dodge?

Consider the type of building or homes. Older homes have different problems then newer ones. What are the main issues and best aspects of the area and how do they impact the story? A dirty, trash-ridden street will create a different feeling than an old dirt road with cattle fence separating the properties.

Places to go and things to do

Death_to_stock_communicate_hands_4Thinks Friends when you’re creating your characters’ daily habits and local haunts. Who’s apartment/house does everyone tend to hang out at and why? What features make it desirable? When they’re out and about, where do they often stop for coffee or to catch up, and how does that environment help the story? If characters need a quiet place to trade secrets or go over plans, a busy, noisy coffee shop might not work as well as a used bookstore.

Something to remember here is that locations should have a point and progress the story. Just because your characters likes kittens doesn’t mean readers need scenes of him or her at a local shelter if it in no way relates to the overall story. Every place or activity needs to be relevant or readers will start to think it’s filler and skim over it.

Work/office worldbuilding

iStock_000023280434LargeSimilar to building a neighborhood, it’s important to develop the work or office life of a character. How much it needs to be developed depends on how important it is to the story. If a character has social anxiety, a busy and fast-paced office will provide conflict. If a teen character is itching for excitement but works at an outdated video rental store only a few old people visit every week, that also provides conflict. If work is only mentioned in passing to acknowledge that the character does indeed have a job, minimal development is needed beyond the fact that it eats up a large portion of their time and provides an income.

Other sources of conflict and potential to move a story forward include relationships with co-workers, possibility of moving on to something better, fear of being fired, how other people in the office view the MC, and on and on. Again, any detail you insert should have a point, even if it’s only providing a coworker for the MC to sound off to or bounce ideas off.

Relationship to the world at large

DeathtoStock_CreativeSpace8 11.45.06 AMA very important, overarching detail to develop is how your MC relates to the world. This is most often going to develop from backstory. Some writers develop the backstory first while others let it come to light as they write. The important thing about backstory is that it forms a starting point for your character and helps determine an end point.

How does your character see the world around them? What problems or benefits does this viewpoint create? How will they overcome related problems? How will they change by the end of the book?

A character living in an overpriced, cramped apartment in New York will view it differently depending on where he or she was before that. Someone escaping a small town they hated may see it much more positively than someone who has been cut off and forced to make their own way. The character’s view of their world will alter how they will describe a scene, interact with others, make choices, and move within that world.

youth group vacation travel city

Even if your characters are living in the same world we are, don’t skimp on developing a realistic and full setting. The more readers can recognize and relate to where your characters exist, the more they will connect to the overall story. We may all live in the same world, but we each experience it very differently, and so should your characters.

Posted in books, characters, creative writing, writing, writing thoughts, writing tips, young adult

Categorizing young adult fiction

read-515531_1920I’ve been editing a young adult project I wrote a few years back and never got back to, and it reminded me of a comment I saw on social media a while back about whether YA is an age group or a genre.

Traditionally, YA has been categorized based on audience age and the age and experiences of the protagonist. Youth ages 12-18 are the  target audience. Themes focus on new experiences and challenges as characters approach adulthood.

As the genres have shifted over the past decade, there’s been some debate about whether YA is still categorized based on character age and audience age, or if it should even be considered a genre at all. It’s more complicated than simply saying it’s one or the other, or should or shouldn’t be.

It’s not uncommon for a teenage character to face challenges and themes that may not be suitable for a twelve-year-old reader. Is it still YA? The fact that half of YA readers are adults shows that plenty of grownups enjoy reading about the young adult experience. Is it still YA if adults are the largest reader group of a particular book? The wide variety of subgenres, topics covered, heat levels, amount of profanity, and character age ranges in YA shows how difficult it is to pinpoint what is and isn’t YA.

I didn’t read Lord of the Flies until I was in high school, yet the characters are pre-adolescent. The content, however, would make it a difficult read for middle grade readers.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s main character, Scout, is only six years old when the book begins, but deals with difficult concepts and themes which apply to a wide variety of readers of all ages.

Fahrenheit 451 is often listed as both YA and adult fiction, and is frequently on high school reading lists. However, almost all of the main characters are all adults and the story deals with complex themes and difficult scenes.

So what makes a book YA, and is it a genre or age range of target readers?

I tend to agree that YA as a genre attempts to pigeon-hole a huge variety of fiction into one category. It says more about the age range of readers someone out there thinks will enjoy the story more than what type of book it is. TO me, that’s not a terrible helpful category. You have to move on to subgenre to figure out what a book is going to be about.

Classifying a book has more to do with the point and purpose of the story than the age of the reader or characters. Does the story speak to the experiences of a young adult? The teenage years are often a time of self-discovery and trying to figure out where you belong in the world. Young adults face a lot of “firsts” that are often complicated to manage and can have a huge impact on the way they see themselves and the world, good or bad.

YA fiction tends to focus on the specific challenges and crises that go along with entering a new world (adulthood, moving towns or schools, first relationships and jobs, etc.), social and emotional growth and development, exploring boundaries (relationships, drugs and alcohol, sex, etc.), and self-discovery.

Of course, many adults face similar issues, which is why the lines get blurred so often between genres, however, teens tend to experience these things differently than most adults. This shifts the focus or perspective of YA fiction. A relationship at 16 is very different than one at 40. The same goes for jobs, school, sex, and much more. The thing is, though, that those experiences are interesting to more than just the teens out there living it because it’s about the human experience.

Despite what genre gets listed on Kindle or Apple Books, YA is more complicated than simply saying it’s a defined genre or an age group. An author may have a specific audience or purpose as they write, but readers take what they will from each book they read and catalog it in a way that makes sense to them. The exact definition matters a lot less than whether or not the story speaks to readers in a meaningful way.

Posted in books, creative writing, lessons learned, writing, writing advice, writing thoughts, writing tips

Lessons Learned: Life of Pi

I watched the movie first, and really enjoyed it, so I figured I would read the book, since there’s always so much left out of the movie version of any book. This is one of those very rare times where I actually preferred the trimmed down movie version.

life of piFor those who haven’t read or seen Life of Pi, it’s about a young man who survives his ship sinking in the middle of the sea during a journey from India to Canada. He makes it to a life boat, but finds himself in the company of several of the zoo animals his family was transporting…including a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

What I loved about this story was the use of extended metaphor to tell Pi’s story of survival at sea with Richard Parker (I won’t give away what that’s a metaphor for in case you haven’t seen/read it). It’s not a commonly used tactic in modern fiction, and if you’d like an great example of it, read this book. Or watch the movie.

How to write an extended metaphor is not the lesson learned from this book, however.

Not overloading your reader or being condescending to them is the lesson learned.

c4223-robotcartoonInfodumping is often a struggle for writers who do in-depth research for a book. You found out all these awesome things about whatever and now you HAVE TO SHARE THEM ALL! Unless you are writing a non-fiction book about your topic that is meant to give a detailed history of whatever, please, please, please for the love of all things bookish DO NOT vomit up every seemingly fascinating tidbit of research you uncovered while preparing to write your book.

Listening to an audiobook, you can’t really skim, which makes endless amounts of information you’re not particularly interested in even harder to get through. I listened to Life of Pi and simply had to take a break when chapters went on and on about various animals, their habits and traits, mating rituals, etc. I started listening to the book to find out more about Pi’s journey, not to hear a dissertation on animal husbandry.

Focus on what your reader wants out of your story, not just on what you want to tell them.

girl-868784_1920I also struggled to listen at length to the religious discussions, which I usually enjoy quite a bit. I think religion is a fascinating topic and enjoy learning about many different religions. What I didn’t enjoy was, again, too much straight information that took me away from the story, and the sometimes condescending way the information was presented. I don’t hold with any particular religion, but I was still bothered by the sense I got that if a reader didn’t agree with the author’s opinions on eating meat, practicing multiple religions at once, or who or what God or gods might be they were simply wrong or not as smart as the author. I enjoy learning about how others view God, religion, the Universe, etc., but in a way that invites thoughtfulness rather than looking down on others’ beliefs or viewpoints.

Don’t talk down to your reader.

While I enjoyed the story overall, I definitely prefer the movie version, which focused the point of Pi’s journey as a struggle to understand faith and the meaning of life when faced with tragedy. If something you want to put into your book doesn’t add to the story or unnecessarily turns readers off, there’s a good chance it doesn’t need to be there.

Posted in creative writing, writing, writing advice, writing tips

Fiction Vs. Reality…And the Author’s Responsibility

I was going through my list of drafts in my blog roll and found this title but no content. I think there was a specific review or article that inspired this debate, but I can’t remember what it was lol!

Either way, it’s an interesting topic.

Typewriter illustrationSeveral years ago on a car ride my family and I started listening to “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. I downloaded it from Audible after only a cursory glance at the summary and checking the reviews. So, it wasn’t until several hours into the book that my husband and I both turned to look at each other and asked, “Is this book a true story?”

Why ask that question?

Because it was too unbelievable to be fiction!

Louis Zampirini’s life was quite literally unbelievable in many ways. As history, it’s fascinating and incredible. As fiction, readers would have rolled their eyes at how many dangerous and crazy situations he got into and survived! If you haven’t read the book, please do, you’ll understand so much better what I’m talking about.

So, this question is…where is the line as a fiction author? How do you balance crafting a compelling and engaging story without making it unbelievable? Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years.

1. Characters lose more often than they win.

Depressed woman portrait

Sure, most days in reality are pretty routine, and we all have those days where everything just goes right. Is that interesting to read about? NO. In real life, maybe the boring days and good days are the norm, but the days and weeks we struggle and fail and do stupid things and hurt the people we love are the ones that push us to grow and do better, or maybe to give up and throw our hands in the air. Readers are pulled in by the struggle. They can connect and empathize with lousy days and bruised emotions.

2. There are only so many times you can win or escape.

galaxy questBe mean to your characters all you want. Kill your darlings, right? However, if the end to every situation is a predictable close call or last second escape, readers will not only be annoyed they’ll lose interest. Have you ever watched Tim Allen in “Galaxy Quest”? They parodied this concept beautifully when the alien ship built to model the TV series spaceship is designed to stop its self-destruct sequence at 1 second because “that’s what always happened on the show.” It’s funny because we all now how irritating that “last second” save becomes after a while. While there are rare stories, like Zamperini’s, where people really do beat all the odds and survive the worst situations, most people fail and miss chances and get hurt.

3. Going through traumatic experiences have lasting effects.

unbrokenLouis Zamperini survived an incredible amount of danger and horribleness in his life, BUT there were deep scars left behind because of what he suffered. The last third of the book that deals with the aftermath of being tortured in a Japanese prison camp is very, very hard to listen to because the lasting damage is so real. I’ve read to many novels (especially YA) where the main character has some tragic past or experiences something truly awful…and bounces back like it was nothing. This is not one of those areas where reality needs to be downplayed. Let your characters be as broken as they need to be. Emotional scars are something we all understand. Characters need that element of reality to ring true with readers.

4. Romance has more leeway, use it.

Most people are fairly rational, even when it comes to relationships. Love can conquer all in movies and romance novels, but real people often give up on difficult relationships and choose not to take risks. Now, I’m not saying all romantic stories have to be 100% HEA, “Enchanted” style storylines. What I am saying is that in romance readers  expect a little more of a break from reality. Let your characters make rash decisions or fall too hard too fast. It’s okay if their choices wouldn’t be completely rational or logical in real life. A lot of romance readers want the escapism, the fantasy. Don’t go overboard, but bend reality a little when it enhances the love story.

Enchanted

Balancing fiction and reality is tough, because the line between captivating and irritating a reader can be thin. Stretch reality when it enhances the story, not when you want an easy way out of a situation.