Thursday, May 31, 2012

31. The Ending of Pandora’s Genes

In my first Blogathon post here, one month ago, I talked about how Pandora’s Genes came to me in a dream, and how writing the first part quickly, in a few weeks, was “like a three-week orgasm.”

Now I want to tell you about writing the ending, which was both very similar and very different from writing the beginning.

In yesterday’s post I described my frustration when I kept having to rewrite the entire novel. I ultimately rewrote most of it six times. The reason I kept at it was because I LOVED Pandora’s Genes and believed in it. Although it may appear to be just another post-holocaust adventure tale, I felt that I said some important things in it. And the characters were more real to me than my family and friends.

KLancePandorasGenesAEbook cover, designed by Glenace Melton

My final revisions took a few months, and just when I thought I was nearly finished, my editor said to me: “Now, you know you’ll have to change the ending.”


I didn’t know any such thing. I loved the ending, which originally was that Zach, Will, and Evvy would be married, since the most common form of marriage in the Pandora’s world was two or more husbands and a wife.

“Our readers,” my editor told me, “Are not ready for a three-way marriage.”

I was stunned. Stunned and dismayed. It had never occurred to me that I would have to change one of the most important parts of the book. And how could I change it? I was so distraught that for several days I felt as if my mind had gone blank, that my formerly reliable imagination had deserted me.

But I should have trusted my subconscious to come to the rescue.

One night a week or two after the upsetting conversation with my editor, I had another dream. In this dream I was at the end of a long pregnancy and in labor. Many people were gathered around helping me as I pushed the baby out of my body.As the baby was born, I felt pressure, but not pain; warmth, spreading throughout my body, and intense pleasure, very like an orgasm.

When the baby was fully born, I woke up with the new ending for the book in my mind.

I wrote it down before I could forget it, and submitted it. The editor loved it.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

30. From writing a novel to publishing it

In my first blog post this month, I talked about writing the first part of Pandora’s Genes in a kind of white-hot frenzy of creation. It took me about three weeks to get those first 100 or so pages down, and then another several months before I finished the first draft, which was around 400 pages.

I typed it all on my Selectric typewriter, on green paper, which I superstitiously used for all my fiction drafts. Whenever I came to a passage that was too slow or otherwise wasn’t moving, I switched to pen and white paper, then transferred what I had written to the typewriter.

I continued to revise and retype, and a couple of years after I’d started I finally had something that I was happy enough with to take to my agent, who had so far only represented my nonfiction books.

My agent suggested numerous changes, so I spent another several months of revising, retyping, and so on. At last she was happy with it and began sending it out.

After a year’s worth of rejections, we finally got a nibble from Warner books, which was looking for new writers for a new science fiction imprint, Questar. The only catch was that the editor wanted a complete rewrite before she would commit to buying it. So I spent the summer revising the whole thing again, on spec, and finally turned it in, approximately 4 ½ years from when I started writing.

The good news was, she bought it! The bad news… well, she wanted more changes. I’ll tell you about the biggest change tomorrow, but I spent another few months revising again, and then making more changes for the copy editor, until finally the book was done! We had a cover! It was scheduled to come out in six months!

                                              PG First orig coverFirst cover

Except that the head buyer for Waldenbooks, a major player in the sf market in those days, hated the cover. He told our marketing department that he would not order the book unless we got a whole new cover. This would delay the book another six months, but that was not his problem.

It was mine.

A new cover was prepared.pandora

This one was by the great sf artist Don Mattingly, and this time Waldenbooks approved. Approximately six years from the morning I wrote down the dream that became Pandora’s Genes, my book was, finally, published!

Tomorrow: The ending of Pandora’s Genes

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

29. The Future of this Blog

With today’s post I have nearly completed the 31-day WordCount Blogathon challenge. I’ve enjoyed writing these posts and I’m glad I entered the blogathon. But I need to devote more of my energy to writing the third book in the Pandora’s series.

From now on I will post here regularly, but probably only once or twice a week. One post will always be on Wednesday. I’m not sure about the second post, and welcome suggestions.

Here are some of the topics I intend to discuss:

  • Ghostwriting
  • Motivation
  • How to get readers on your protagonist’s side
  • How and when to begin a story
  • What is voice?
  • More advice from my mentor

Please feel free to suggest other topics you would like to see addressed.

BookcoversA 5-19-2012 2-33-34 PM 5120x2880

I also want to spiff up the look of this blog. I’m thinking of including this collage of some of my books covers  in the header. What do you think?

Tomorrow: How I sold and revised Pandora’s Genes.

Monday, May 28, 2012

28. How to deal gracefully with editorial suggestions

First, a disclaimer: I love editors. My first book editor not only improved my writing,  she became one of my best friends and still is. Editors have a hard job, and it has become much harder as the publishing business has changed. In fact, very few editors even have time to edit anymore.

Still, it is always difficult to accept editorial suggestions even when they are spot-on. When I wrote Pandora’s Children, my idea was to tell the whole story, including what had happened before the first book, Pandora’s Genes. So I wrote this very long, very intricately plotted story, switching back and forth not only among the different characters in the present, but also in the past.

When I turned it in my editor hated it.

She told me to take out all of the scenes from the past.

After fuming and feeling certain that I wasn’t really a writer for a few days, I did most of what she asked, though I did still include a few of the scenes that I felt were important.

I haven’t been writing books lately (except for the third book in the Pandora’s series), but I recently sold an erotic short story to a new anthology. My editor loves the story. She wanted very few changes. She did ask me to remove a particular paragraph, saying that it didn’t really add anything to the story.

But that is my favorite paragraph in the whole story! I wanted to say. The story is about an older woman who finds she has become invisible to men. She is thinking about her prospects while listening to a mockingbird. Here is the paragraph:

I stand in the patio breathing deeply as the sun drops toward the pink stucco wall behind the restaurant. Atop a light pole a mockingbird runs through his repertoire.mocker head-on crop 2-27-2004 8-23-54 PM 805x850 Ornithologists have found that mockingbirds sing to establish territory and to attract a mate. If a male fails to find a mate, he doesn’t give up. He keeps singing, day and night, until breeding season is over. I try not to feel sorry for myself. It’s natural, I tell myself. Younger women are prettier.

I liked the paragraph because I felt it added a certain poignancy to the story, plus, I adore mockingbirds. I considered arguing with my editor, but instead I cut all but the first two lines. She knows what she wants. And the truth is, she bought my story. It’s no longer mine.

But as it turns out, I’ve gotten to use the paragraph after all.

Tomorrow: the future of this blog.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

27. Give Yourself Credit as a Writer.

When my first book was published, I finally felt free to call myself a writer. By then, I had been writing professionally for about five years. I’d written hundreds of soap opera scripts, dozens of articles and stories for Scholastic Magazines, and innumerable teaching guides.

But was I really a writer? For some reason, I always felt shy about saying so. “I write for the soaps,” I might say. Or, “I work at Scholastic.” To me in those days, a writer was someone like Shakespeare or Dostoevsky, or Hemingway or even Erle Stanley Gardner.

My first book, Running for Health and Beauty, was the first mass-market book on running for women.Runningpb I wrote it after having started running in my late twenties. But just as with my writing career, I felt very strange about calling myself a runner. I was slow, and I didn’t like to race. I usually said, “I’m just a jogger.” As for my book, my editor chose the title.

One day I was jogging in Central Park with a friend, and told him I felt funny about the title of the book. He asked why, and I said, “Well, I’m not a real runner.” He said, “We’re running, aren’t we?” I said yes. He said, “Then you’re a runner.”

I know now that the same thing is true of writing. Just as not all runners can finish marathons, not all writers can support themselves writing. But in my opinion, anyone who writes is a writer.

If you have the courage to face that blank page and fill it with your dreams, your imaginings, or even an honest account of what is going on in your life, you’re a writer. If expressing yourself on paper is the way you make sense of your life, if you tell stories because you can’t NOT tell them, you are a writer. If you read books on writing or even my writing tips, because you hope to become better at writing, then you’re a writer.

Tomorrow: How to deal gracefully with editorial suggestions

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Friday, May 25, 2012

26. Less is More: how to keep your writing clear and simple

In a guest post on The Writing Well, on May 14, I discussed showing (dramatizing) vs. telling (summarizing) in fiction writing. In order to dramatize without over-dramatizing, it helps to make your language as simple as possible. LESS wordiness almost always means MORE impact.

Be stingy with adjectives and adverbs. The fewer you use, the more powerful your writing. The trick is in choosing the one or two best modifiers.

He angrily slammed his fist on the bar. "Get out of here, you son of a bitch!" he snarled rabidly, his face contorted in rage.


See how much simpler—and more effective—this passage is if you get rid of some of the indicators of anger:

He slammed his fist on the bar. "Get out of here, you son of a bitch!"

Trust your readers... and trust yourself. Sometimes, as writers, we are unsure of our ability to convey strong emotions, so we tend to overdo it. With simple, clear writing, you only need to make your point once--you needn't beat your reader over the head with it. Compare these passages with their simplified revisions:

Her eyes filled with tears of joy. "Oh, Michael," she breathed softly, her face full of love. "It's... it's beautiful," she added, her voice trembling with emotion. Never had she felt such love.

Her eyes filled. "Oh, Michael," she breathed. "It's beautiful."

A sense of power surged strongly through him and he raised his fist in the air, pumping it three times. "Yes!" he cried triumphantly. He would make all the small, petty little people cringe and pay for what they had done to him.

A sense of power surged through him and he raised his fist. "Yes!" he cried. He would make them all pay.

Bear in mind that the context usually gives plenty of hints about what is going on. For example, in the first example above, we would know it is a love scene. In the second, we probably already know how he feels about the people he will "make pay"--and what he feels they have done to him.

Finally, a personal bugaboo, don’t EVER use the word “hysterically” in describing how someone weeps.

“Leave me alone!” she screamed, sobbing hysterically.

All you really need here is:

“Leave me alone!” she sobbed.

Tomorrow: Give yourself credit as a writer.



25. Conflict and emotion: the heart and soul of fiction.

I think that writers and actors have a lot in common. I believe many of us are very private, even introverted, souls who must nevertheless put something very personal on display in our work. Back when I was writing soap operas , I once took a beginning acting class to see if it would give me any insights into the actors I was writing for.


The class turned out to be valuable, but more for what it taught me about ME. In presenting a scene, I was downgraded because I was unable to put myself into it 100%—I simply could not overcome my self-consciousness. I believe that kind of self-consciousness often holds writers back as well. As a writer colleague once put it, it’s so hard to do emotional scenes "so the effect hits the reader, rather than paralyzing the writer."

Here are some ways I’ve found to handle strong emotion and conflict in fiction.

1. Put yourself in the character’s shoes. Here is where the acting lessons helped. . My acting teacher had told me to imagine a similar situation in the past to the situation I was trying to portray in front of the acting class. Although I was unable to project strong emotion on the stage, it turned out I could do it on the page

In my Pandora's novels, I have violent and even deadly arguments and fights among alpha males and between alpha men and women.  I know from reader feedback that the scenes were for the most part, successful.  How did I do it?

For many of these scenes, I imagined myself as the point of view character, imagined that I was in that scene, and imagined what would happen, based on something similar in my own life.  For example, in the big confrontation scene in Pandora's Genes at the end of the book, where Will learns that Zach has betrayed him, I imagined how I would have felt if my beloved sister had returned from the dead and I found that she had betrayed me.  I was able to use the resulting churning and painful emotions, filtered through Will's already established personality, to depict his reaction.

2. Go with your discomfort.  If you are reluctant to approach an emotional scene, examine the reasons for your reluctance.  For example, many writers are uncomfortable about writing sex scenes.  A good way to handle that is to examine the feelings the sex scene arouses in you and put those feelings in the head of the point of view character.  If what you are feeling is aversion, let us see the aversion.

I used this technique when writing The Ptorrigan Lode, which has several scenes of graphic physical and mental torture. In real life, I am a person who will not see a movie with any hint of violence, yet here I was orchestrating the worst kind of brutality. It made me intensely uncomfortable, yet somehow that discomfort, once I recognized it for what it was, helped me to make the scenes realistic for readers without (I hope) sending them screaming into the next room.

3. Seek help.  In the fight scenes in the Pandora’s books, I asked a couple of friends who had been in combat how to handle various physical situations, such as carrying an inert body through a smoke-filled room. I asked these same friends how they felt at such times, and used their answers. The one I remember most vividly was the scene in Pandora’s Children in which Zach singlehandedly attacks several armed Traders. My friend told me that Zach must make himself BELIEVE he is stronger and a better fighter than his foes, and to begin the attack with the loudest scream he can manage, putting his whole body and soul into it. I put myself into Zach’s head, tried it, and it worked!

Tomorrow: less is more

Thursday, May 24, 2012

24. How to get from Point A to Point B: the logistics of moving characters from one spot to another

The big sex scene, the revealing moment at the end of the book—these are the scenes most novelists look forward to writing. But over the course of a novel, there’s a lot of mundane movement that has to be handled as skillfully as the high drama.

I am talking here about the mechanics of maneuvering your characters through imaginary time and space in order to further the plot. A mistake often made by my novel-writing students (and sometimes by pros) is to include every boring detail.

Say, for example, we have to get John from his workplace to his bedroom/office at home, where an important plot point will occur. Although the following example is exaggerated, it’s not that uncommon to read passages such as:

John came home from work. He parked the car, climbed the flagstone steps, and entered through the kitchen door. He placed his briefcase on the counter, then shrugged out of his suit coat and hung it on the back of a chair. Tired and thirsty, he walked over to the refrigerator and opened the door. He saw a carton of milk. He found a glass in the dish drainer, took out the milk, and poured some of the creamy white liquid. He drank the milk, rinsed the glass, and placed it back in the dish drainer. Then he headed for the front hall and climbed the steps toward his upstairs office.
                                          blue milk

Boring, right? In many novels or stories, there would be no need for anything more than a brief statement: “When John got home he headed for his bedroom office.”

BUT, depending on what John will do or find in that upstairs room, the seemingly boring passage above may turn out to be very important. The key is to choose which parts of it to emphasize, depending on what is going to happen

For example, suppose the milk is poisoned, and John is destined to collapse when he gets upstairs. In that case, we would want to linger on the details of John’s arrival home. Especially if we the audience KNOW that the milk is poisoned, we may be thinking, “No, John, don’t drink it!” As the author, I’d want to add some details such as, “The milk tasted a little old. He checked the expire-by date, and saw it was still good for another week, so he poured another glass.”

What if, instead of a mystery, this is a thriller or sci-fi novel, and John will receive a horrifying message on his home computer? In that case, we’d want to gloss over the details until he reaches his home office:

As soon as John arrived home, he grabbed a soda and headed for his home office.  It was going to be a long night of working on the taxes and he wanted to get an early start. But as soon as he turned the machine on, he knew something was wrong.

At this point, the computer may start talking to him, or a terrifying message pops up, or he receives a threatening email.

In a mainstream novel or a romance, John may discover that his wife has left him. In this case, we might have a few more details downstairs:

He noticed that Sarah hadn’t washed the breakfast dishes as she usually did. But he didn’t think much of it till he saw the envelope lying on the top of his laptop.

                                                                         dear john

Or perhaps he notices that some drawers are open downstairs, but it’s not till he gets to his upstairs office that he realizes there is a burglar in the house.

Such seemingly basic details as logistics can make a big difference to the readability—and success-- of your novel.

Tomorrow we’ll look at a biggie: how to handle strong emotions in fiction.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

23. How to insert background information in dialogue

As a group, writers tend to be very generous with their colleagues. Nobody exemplifies that spirit better than my mentor, the late Robert Cenedella. Bob taught me the most important things I know about writing in the early 1970’s, when I worked for him first as a secretary and then as a script writer. Bob was a writer who had done it all: articles; short stories; an acclaimed novel (A Little to the East—well worth searching out); live and taped television dramas, including soap operas. At the time I met him, Bob was Head Writer for Another World, and just starting a spinoff, called Somerset.

bob-Cenedella_thumb1                                                                          Bob Cenedella

Lessons from my Mentor, Part I

Among the many things Bob taught me, one of the first and most important was what I call The Soap Opera Rule. The rule is simple: Never have one character tell another something they both already know.

I call it The Soap Opera Rule because it's often broken on soap operas, but you see flagrant violations of this rule all the time, in novels, stories, movies and nighttime TV shows. When The Soap Opera Rule is broken, it looks something like this:

Chet shook his head. "I feel so bad for you, Roger," he said. "First you spent all those years studying to be a PhD in astrophysics. Then you married Camille. The two of you were chosen to be the first couple on the moon. But then she got leprosy and died hideously. They kicked you off the project. And you haven't been the same since."

Roger choked back a sob. "I didn't know it showed!"

 Well, okay, they aren't usually this bad. But some come close.

The problem here is that the writer needs to insert a lot of background information into the script (or novel, or whatever). So he just throws it all in. (Whew! That’s over!) But there are many better, more natural ways to get that information across. One way would be for Chet to think about some of the facts during his conversation with Roger:

Looking at his friend's gaunt face, Chet couldn't help feeling sorry for Roger. All that work getting the PhD in astrophysics, all the training he and Camille had gone through, and then she had the bad luck to get leprosy.

"We're all sorry you won't be going on the mission, Roger," he said.

"Yeah, sure," Roger said. "If you're all so sorry, then why was I kicked off the project?"

Chet didn't answer for a moment. Roger had been so touchy since Camille had died. "I don't know," he said finally. "Rotten luck all the way around."

Alternatively, you could have Chet discuss the situation with someone who doesn't know about Roger's situation (during a scene that is about something else—or it will appear gratuitous); or put it in a flashback; or drop the pieces of information bit by bit in other scenes.

Whichever way you decide to impart the information, always remind yourself that you are informing the audience or reader, not one of the characters who already knows or should know.

Tomorrow: how to get from point A to point B.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

22. Novel writing: Trust your subconscious

The most important thing I have learned in forty-plus years as a professional writer is to trust my subconscious. Not only does it give me entire plots in dreams, it is apparently hard at work on my fiction even when I’m doing something else, like cooking or leading bird walks.


In a previous post I mentioned that some writers of seemingly-intricately plotted works maintain that they never use an outline. I believe them, because I am quite sure that their subconscious does the intricate plotting for them.In that same post I showed how instead of a formal outline I jot down notes as ideas for the novel occur. Those ideas come from my subconscious, which is always several steps ahead of my conscious mind.

For example, my subconscious often plants things I will need later in a story. When I was writing Going to See Grassy Ella, my YA novel, I had Peej, the heroine, get motion sickness in a very early scene. At the time, I thought it was just a character point, but it turned out to be a crucial plot point later on, when Peej and her sister are trying to escape from kidnappers.


As far as I knew when I was writing Pandora’s Genes, Zach was not directly based on anyone I knew. But my subconscious may have known better, because thirty years after I had last seen him, an old boyfriend turned up in my life to thank me for writing about him. He had read the book, read the description of Zach, and concluded that I had based the relationship between Zach and Evvy on him. At first all I could think was, “You’re so vain I’ll bet you think this book is about you,” but on further thought I realized that he was probably, in part, right.  

In the case of The Ptorrigan Lode, my gritty sf novella, I knew in a general way that the protagonist, Jay, would be okay in the end,  but wasn't quite sure how that would happen, until it happened. Jay’s literal transformation was as big a surprise to me as it has been to many of my readers. It was like a light going on in darkness when I realized that my subconscious had been leading me to this denouement from the beginning of the story.

Here are three proven ways to enlist your own subconscious in your novel-in-progress:

1. Write down your dreams--especially if they contain vivid imagery. Even if those images don’t seem at first to connect to your novel, just writing them down will help to open a channel to unconscious processes.

2. Carry a notebook everywhere--or use your cellphone’s memo feature--to record thoughts as they bubble up. I’ve noticed that the more I do this, the more ideas occur to me. I think the subconscious LIKES to be noticed.

3. Spend some time daily in a mindless, repetitive activity like jogging, or meditate regularly. These activities will help you get your conscious mind out of the way and allow your subconscious ideas to surface.

Tomorrow: How to insert background information unobtrusively

Monday, May 21, 2012

21. How to Live With a Novelist

My dear friend Kate Kelley, who is an excellent writer and the funniest person I know, has graciously agreed to write today’s post.

So you have a novelist! Congratulations! If this is your first novelist, you may be
puzzled or frustrated by her behavior. Relax! With patience, understanding, and generous self-medication, you’ll find your novelist to be a rewarding companion.


Perhaps your novelist has been writing secretly for some time. Perhaps she suddenly announced, “I’m going to write a novel!” No matter how you came to find yourself sharing your life with a novelist, the following tips may help you maintain your sanity.

Every novelist is constantly accompanied by a host of characters she has created. These beings are often more real to her than you are, and she follows their lives with much greater interest. Before you impart vital information to your novelist, you need to be sure that she isn’t playing with her imaginary friends. Here are some  test phrases to determine if your novelist is mentally present:

“Stephenie Meyer just got the Nobel Literature Prize for Twilight.”

“Did you know that Stephen King wrote two sequels to The Mangler? And all three were made into movies?”

“Oh, I forgot to tell you. You got calls from Simon & Simon, and Random Penguin House, or something.”

If she doesn’t react, wait and try again later. If waiting isn’t an option, some novelist-keepers recommend a gentle poke with a very long stick. Consider the strength and speed of your novelist before you attempt this.

On the other hand, if your novelist’s gaze is suddenly fixed on you like a pointer on a grouse, you have given her something she can use. As you squirm under her focused and dispassionate gaze, she is mentally carving off bits and pieces to flesh out a character.

Note: If you think you recognize yourself in a heroic figure, your novelist will congratulate you on your perception. If you spot any of your negative traits, your novelist will assure you that you are mistaken. These are lies. Accept them graciously.

Novelists are notoriously unpunctual, if they arrive at all. You must understand that your novelist simultaneously occupies two space-time continuums. She is genuinely astonished when she looks up from a few moments at the keyboard and sees that days have passed, or finds herself in a neighboring state when she meant to drive to the grocery store.

Sometimes you must remove your novelist from her work. Perhaps a tornado is approaching, or her contractions are four minutes apart. In any event, approach cautiously, speak in low, soothing tones, and stay near the door. Don’t be alarmed if she acknowledges your presence with a snarl. Oblivious silence is much more dangerous, and may require the long stick.


Remember, the hardships of co-existing with a novelist will be rewarded when your sacrifices are acknowledged on the dedications page. Unless she thanks her cat, or her fifth-grade teacher, or her favorite barista. In which case, feel free to sharpen up  the stick.

The subconscious is an amazing and surprising ally in creativity. Tomorrow we’ll take a close look at how you can deliberately enlist it in your writing.


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Sunday, May 20, 2012

20. Basing fictional characters on real-life people

Roman a clef,” which means “novel with a key,” is the term for novels and movies  in which actual persons and events are disguised as fictional.

The most famous movie roman a clef is Citizen Kane, whose protagonist was based on the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. A more recent roman a clef is the novel and movie The Devil Wears Prada, in which  Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue Magazine, is thinly disguised as the character Andrea Sachs.

                                 Anna Wintour         wintour

Now I happen to believe that all fictional characters are based in some way on real life people even if the author isn’t consciously aware of doing so. After all, we all learn human actions and motivations from the people we know, starting with our family members.

Peej, the protagonist of my YA novel, Going to See Grassy Ella, is based on my real-life sister Margaret Jane. In the novel, Peej survives her cancer, unlike my sister. For me, creating Peej was a way of allowing my sister to live again.

MJ Lolita Margaret Jane Lance

As a rule, it’s not a great idea to create characters that are too close to someone in real life. This is so for a few reasons. First, most obviously, if your novel is successful, you might get sued.

But second, basing a character too closely on someone real can limit you. The whole point of fiction is to create scenes and situations. If you base your character on Uncle Fred, you may second-guess yourself. “I really want Adam Stark to commit murder during a sky-dive, but I know that Uncle Fred would never do that!”

It is always tempting to use your fiction to settle scores, and I imagine that a large number of fictional characters were written for just that reason, even though we readers are never let in on the secret. I have done that myself on more than one occasion, especially in the young adult series novels I wrote as Lynn Beach. For example, a certain girl who bullied me in junior high school was strangled by a ghost in one of these stories. Just saying.

The bottom line is to so thoroughly disguise any real person you use for a fictional character that he or she will never make the connection. Or at least won’t be able to prove it.

When I was first working on Pandora’s Children, a casual friend  who liked Pandora’s Genes asked me to name a character in the sequel after him. By the time he asked, all the important new characters but one had already been named. The remaining character was a villainous serving boy, and I did name him after my friend. When my friend read the book, he was furious. It turned out he wanted only a heroic character to bear his name

Tomorrow, a special guest post by Kate Fowler Kelley, on how to live with a novelist.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

19. Plot or Not? Part II: What is the difference between a premise and a plot?

In yesterday’s post, we talked about the 6 essential elements of a plot. To briefly recap, they are:

1. The premise
2. The protagonist
3. The basic conflict
4. The antagonist
5. The action and complications
6. The resolution

One of the most common mistakes beginning novelists make is to start out with a premise (the what if?) and call it a plot. A premise is like a dress-maker’s dummy. By itself it is bare and anonymous, but dress it up and it can be anything from a punk-rocker to a fairy-tale princess. In fact, the same premise can serve as the basis for an infinite number of very different stories.

dummy                                9701523-cartoon-punk-guitarist-with-guitar-isolated-on-white                     cinderella                     

Here are two premises that were presented as plots by students in a past novel-writing class:

“What if a man’s wife dies and he starts drinking too much?”  With enough added elements, this could be developed into a serviceable plot for a romance (he falls in love with a woman he meets at AA);  a tale of redemption (after losing his job and his friends, he finds salvation in the form of a crippled dog that adopts him); or any number of other types of story. But by itself, the premise above is NOT a plot.

What if a young girl decides to become the first female major-league baseball player?”  This more promising premise could make a terrific YA coming-of-age novel. What it needs are all the other plot elements. By itself it piques our interest; but it is not a plot.

How about these?

What if a spider were able to write words in her web? I’m sure you recognize the premise here for one of the most beloved of all children’s books, Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. It was White’s amazing skill in interweaving all the other plot elements that made this book a classic.

What if an intelligent but arrogant young man decided that because of his own superiority it was all right for him to do anything--including commit a murder? This premise generated one of the greatest psychological novels of all time: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I’m quite sure it has also served as the basis for many more ordinary mystery novels.

What if an extremely wealthy man decided to commit murder solely to acquire more money? This is the premise for one of my favorite novels, Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith. Much more goes on in the novel than indicated by that brief what-if, but that premise is the reason the protagonist, Arkady Renko, takes so long to solve the murder. Because as a man raised in the Soviet Union’s anti-capltalist society, Arkady literally cannot imagine someone so wealthy as the villain committing murder merely for more money.

Tomorrow we’ll examine the tricky concept of basing characters on real-life people.

Friday, May 18, 2012

18. Plot… or not? Part I: The six essential elements of a plot.

Genre books such as thrillers, mysteries, and romances may be popular for a number of reasons--a likeable hero or heroine, a trendy subject--but if the book is really a page turner, you are turning the pages because of the plot. Because you want to find out what happens next.

Good plots don’t just happen--they all have the following elements, expressed here in the form of a question. For purposes of illustration, let’s use The Wizard of Oz.


1. What if? (The premise)  What if an ordinary girl were taken to a magical land far from her home?

2. Who? (The protagonist) Dorothy.

3. What does he/she want? (The basic conflict)  Most of all, Dorothy wants to go home. In the course of the story, of course, she wants many other things, including to meet the Wizard and to thwart the wicked witch.

4. Who/what is trying to prevent her from getting it? (The antagonist) Dorothy’s main enemy is the wicked witch, but the Wizard himself also tries to thwart her for a while.

5. What happens? (The main action and complications) She and her new friends go off on many adventures en route to destroying the wicked witch.

6. How does it end? (The resolution) Does the character get what he wants? If not, what does he get instead? For example, a valuable lesson, or what she really wanted. Yes, Dorothy goes back home, AND learns the valuable lesson that there is no place like home.

Does your plot include all these elements? If not, you may want to re-think it. Often the problem is that you have a premise, but not a plot.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a closer look at the difference between a premise and a plot.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

17. Creating science-fiction animals: the strange creatures in Pandora’s Genes

When I began writing Pandora’s Genes, the strange, mutated animals appeared to me fully-formed in the same way as the main characters.

At the beginning of the novel, Zach visits Evvy’s family on an “ill-tempered” mount that becomes immobile at sunset; Zach and Evvy must shelter in a cave, protected by fire, to avoid poison-bats, which cannot bear to exposure to light; and Evvy is helped to find the Garden by Baby, the inquisitive and friendly fox-cat.

Fox-cat Baby, the Fox-cat

Could such creatures exist in real life? Probably not, but some of their adaptations are not really so far-fetched. Take the poison-bats. Most of today’s bats avoid bright lights, preferring to operate at dusk or in the dark. And although it is rare, a number of mammals, such as some shrews and moles do produce venom.

Likewise, the stolid mounts, which in the Pandora’s world have replaced most other riding and pack animals, might have evolved from camels, which do have very thick skins and can travel long distances in unpredictable terrain. They are also known for their unpredictable, surly temperaments. In the Pandora’s world, these mutated creatures have developed the ability to remain completely immoblle after sunset, when hunting bats would be attracted to any movement.

The fox-cats are everyone’s favorite Pandora’s creatures. Although there may or may not be such a thing as an empathic sense in real life, anyone who has ever owned cats knows that they often appear to read minds. In my post-Change world, the remaining house cats developed this ability along with larger ears for more acute hearing, and the superior intelligence necessary to live in such a dangerous world. Like today’s cats and dogs, the fox-cats bond readily with humans.

My wonderful cover designer, Glenace Melton, based the fox-cat’s appearance on that of my most beloved and always-remembered Hatshe, pictured here:Hatshe statue-001

Tomorrow: Plot or not? (Part I)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

16. My Second Act: How I Re-invented Myself..

As part of the WordCount Blogathon, all participants are invited  to share their “Second Act,” a midlife transformation they have made or hope to make. My own Second Act is unusual, in that my Act One was one many people aspire to for their second: life as a successful freelance writer.

By my late fifties, I found I had achieved most of my career goals--I’d published more than fifty books, including a couple of best-sellers and several novels; I’d written dozens of articles and short stories, I’d taught writing in many different venues. The publishing world was changing, becoming more difficult for “mid-list” writers like myself (those who make a living but are not household names), and I decided it was time to move on.

About the time I came to this realization,  I was inspired by our new president’s call to volunteer in my community. But I didn’t want to do anything related to writing or reading or words at all. What could I do?

One afternoon I visited Tohono Chul Park, a nature preserve near my home in Tucson, Arizona.  I was impressed with the knowledge and friendliness of the docents, who guided visitors through the beautiful cultivated gardens and natural desert trails. I was reminded of my own early interest in biology, including two years as a zoology major in college.

I can do this, I thought. Even more, I WANT to do this. I signed up for the docent training and a few months later found myself in a classroom with twenty other late-life trainees. For the next five months, I studied geology, desert ecology, reptiles, birds, desert mammals, and Arizona history. I learned, on weekly field trips, to identify dozens of desert plants. I read and did written homework, took weekly quizzes, helped prepare a plant book. It was extremely difficult, and more fun than I could have imagined.

In due time I earned my name badge and docent vest, and became a docent in the Park, leading tours, helping visitors and answering questions. Today I lead bird walks and help out at the reptile show, my favorite.

Snake Woman CU 1  KL the Docent

I have now completed two and a half years as a docent at the Park. I’ve made several  wonderful friends and have become the opposite of a reclusive freelance. Old friends are often astonished to see me approaching strangers and helping them enjoy the Park as much as I do.

As for writing, for the first two years I didn’t even think about it. Now, I realize that I just needed a break from something that had nourished me for so long. I’m working on a new novel, one that will be informed by much of what I have learned in my new role as a naturalist.

Tomorrow: Where did the fox-cat come from?


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

15 Novel writing: Three ways to keep going when you’re stuck

There is an inevitable moment--and sometimes more than a moment--when you get stuck somewhere in your novel. For some of us, this happens in the first few pages. But it is more likely to occur later on, when you already have a story, you have characters you understand and care about, but you just... can’t... write.... another... word.

For times like these, I recommend the following tricks. I know they work, because I use them myself.

1.  Probably the easiest way to get un-stuck is to write a scene that you know you can do, even though it does not belong where you are chronologically. For example, in Pandora’s Children, I was stuck in the section where the Principal is recovering from his injuries but not sure what he will do next. This is because *I* wasn’t certain what he would do next.

At first I tried to solve this problem by inventing a diplomatic war with a leader to the north, but this did not fit either organically or dramatically. Since I knew what Zach was up to, however, I went ahead and started on the Road Men story. For some reason this jogged my brain, and I was able to move on to the Principal’s next actions, which included his attempts to improve long-distance communications in the District.

2.  A somewhat related technique that works particularly well if you are stuck near the beginning of the story is to write a scene or scenes that take place BEFORE the story begins. This can be very freeing, because you do not have to make this scene mesh with any other scene in the book. It can also be an excellent way to get to know your characters better.

I wrote many, many prequel scenes for the Pandora’s books. Some of them made it into the final publications, and some may turn up in part three. All of them gave me a better understanding of Zach and Will and the creation of the District.

3. If all else fails, my standby cure for writer’s block is to write one sentence every night before you go to bed. If you want to keep going beyond one sentence, that’s fine, and it’s common to find that sentence stretching into a paragraph or even a few pages. But the iron-clad rule is ONE SENTENCE EACH NIGHT. You aren’t allowed to go to sleep until you have done that.

I actually wrote most of the first draft of my YA novel, Going to See Grassy Ella, this way.Greengrass I didn’t have it particularly plotted out until I was pretty far along in the story. But I had two characters I adored, with voices I was very comfortable with. So I wrote a little bit each night until I finally had most of a complete story and was able to finish the rest of the book relatively easily.

Tomorrow, another special Blogathon post, this one on my “second act.”

Monday, May 14, 2012

14. BLOGATHON SWAP DAY—“Digging Deep into the Well”

On this, the 14th day of the WordCount Blogathon, participants are swapping posts with each other. My guest post has been written by Anne Wainscott, a copywriter and fiction writer whose blog, The Writing Well, is devoted to excellence in writing. Her post today is about a topic dear to my writing heart: the importance of “the well,” or the unconscious, in writing.

Anne’s book A Breath Away: Daughters Remember Mothers Lost to Smoking can be purchased here.  Take it away, Anne!

annesargentwebversion                       A Breath Away cover (hi-res)

Last weekend I reviewed The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. While I was on this talented author’s website, I stumbled across a page titled, “Thoughts on Writing” – where she described 10 lessons or insights she’s learned on the path to becoming an author. The third observation she made really struck me…she called it “tapping the river.”

“The well springs of the creative life are deep inside of us,” Monk Kidd wrote. “It’s the place where images are bred, thoughts and feelings are converted into meaning, dreams are choreographed, myths congregate, and the soul talks. Some call it the subconscious, the matrix, or the source of our psyche. I picture it as an underground river, and as far as I’m concerned, the water is composed of genius. I try to dig down to it in a few places and lower my bucket…There are a hundred ways to tap the river.”

Well, the inspiration for my blog, The Writing Well, was similarly inspired. It came from an Ernest Hemingway quote: "I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it."

For me, the magic of narrative writing depends on this process described by both of these authors in different ways. Life experiences, dreams, emotions …the stuff from which stories are born…requires surrender and a willingness to listen to our inner truth.

Do you know what stories you are compelled to write?

For me, my first book, a mother-daughter memoir, A Breath Away, came as an outpouring of grief…becoming a mother while losing a mother. I tapped into my journalism roots to tell the story of 19 mothers and daughters who lost one another too soon because of smoking.

Seven years later, I am inspired to write another kind of memoir -- one that celebrates the wonder of childhood and the unique mother-child bond over bedtime stories.

Finally, I am digging into a lifelong interest in history to begin my first historical novel about a group of Dayton residents on the eve of a horrific flood.

As a commercial copywriter, I write every day, all day, for my clients. I’m often asked, given my work load and the demands of a young family, why I would pursue writing two books.

It’s not that I am a masochist. The simple truth is: I write because I have to write. As Morgan Freeman, one of my favorite actors, once said, “The reason actors, artists, writers have agents is because we'll do it for nothing. That's a basic fact - you gotta do it.”


Note from KL: My post today on Anne’s blog is about the difference in writing between showing (dramatizing) and telling (summarizing). My example is from Pandora’s Genes. Tomorrow’s post will be about a different writing challenge: How to keep going when you’re stuck.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

13. The Political World of Pandora’s Genes

The other day I received the following question in an email from a friend who has been reading these posts:

What drove the politics of the story (the political intricacies – were they sourced on anything in particular)?

As it happens, the political setting in the Pandora’s World fascinates me. When I was a teenager, my father shared his interest in ancient warfare with me, and then in my twenties I read the Greek novels of Mary Renault. They all gripped me, particularly Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy, which were both about the education and military career of Alexander the Great. This rather unusual interest for a young woman led me to ponder:

  • What makes a good leader?
  • How do you deal with an excess of young men (and a dearth of women)  in a society?
  • What are possible solutions to the never-ending conflict between superstition and reason (or, put another way, religion and science)?
  • Can one man, one strong leader, make a difference in the tide of history?

5701302-alexander-the-great-356-323-bc-born-in-pela-the-capital-of-macedon-was-the-son-of-phillip-11-the-kinAlexander the Great

These questions were all put into the head of my leader, the Principal. I touched on each of them to greater or lesser degrees throughout the two books.

For example, Will, the Principal, models himself on Alexander the Great. He feels that a good leader must be strong and decisive; that hearing all sides of an argument is important, but that one person alone must make all final decisions. This view leads him to scorn the leaders of the Garden, the allied enclave that is run and inhabited by female scientists, whose leaders rule by consensus rather than fiat.

The question of how to deal with excess young men in a society has vexed many civilizations throughout history. In modern China, for example, leaders are only beginning to confront this issue as a result of their one-child-per-couple policy, which has led to a shortage of marriageable women.

In the Pandora’s world, Will takes large numbers of young men into his structured army/police force, which is how many societies have handled this problem in the past. Polyandry is an accepted form of marriage in his District.

In Zach’s travels, he encounters the Road Men, who form roving bands of “engineers” and “pullers,” who worship dead automobiles as they pillage the countryside, taking women as spoils. In the third book in the series, Zach will encounter another society that has found yet another way to handle the gender imbalance, this time based on modern US rituals.

The next issue,  the conflict between superstition and reason, is dramatized in the Pandora’s world by the clash between the Principal, who wants to try to restore as much as possible of the old vanished civilization, and the superstitious Traders, who have elevated fear of technology to a religion.

As to whether one man can make a difference to the tide of history, the Principal certainly believes the answer is yes, and that he himself will be featured prominently when history books are again written.

What none of the Principal’s views take into account are what used to be called Acts of God, which can blight the plans of even the most enlightened ruler. This is what my characters will face in the third book, the one I am writing now.

Tomorrow: BLOGATHON SWAP DAY, in which my blog will be written by fellow Blogathoner Anne Wainscott, and hers will be written by me.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

12. Outline or Wing It? Three Ways to Plot a Novel

Beginning novelists often want to know whether they need a detailed outline, or whether it’s okay to just start writing and see what happens. In my view, there are three basic ways to construct a plot:

1. Follow an outline. Your outline might be very detailed, with headings and subheadings, much the way you outlined term papers in high school. Or it could be a list of points to be covered, in the approximate order in which they occur. I have a friend, a successful author of mystery and science fiction stories, who will not put a word on paper until he has a thoroughly thought-out outline. He’s told me that sometimes the outline is longer than the finished project.

I’ve written a number of YA series novels for book packagers, and they always require that a chapter-by-chapter outline be submitted for approval before writing the story. Usually, the outline just hits the high points of what would happen in each chapter, but sometimes I’d include bits of dialogue or description to show the flavor of what to expect. (In Chapter Six, Sara realizes she has turned into a werewolf. We see her horror and fascination as she examines her newly hairy, clawed hands. “Oh, no,” she thought. “What will Drake think?”)

I found writing the outlines tedious, but ultimately very helpful for meeting my daily writing quota.

2. Wing it. As I mentioned in my first post in this series, I just started writing Pandora’s Genes and kept going.  This got me to the end of Part 1, a little over 100 pages. But what then?

There are many writers, including some very popular mystery writers, who maintain they do not know what is going to happen until they get to the end of a book. I believe that this is possible, and have some ideas about why it can work for some writers (I will explore this topic in a future post).

I’m not sure it is a good idea for a beginning novelist to completely wing it, however. There is too much danger of losing any thread of plot and having to throw out a few dozen or even hundred pages, or--worse--losing interest in the novel. Instead, I recommend a hybrid method of plotting, which is:

3. Plot-as-you-go. This is what I ultimately ended up doing with Pandora’s Genes, and it began before I reached the end of Part I. What happened was that ideas for the rest of the story started occurring to me, almost randomly, so I scribbled them down as I thought of them--sometimes on a page I was working on, sometimes on index cards or scraps of paper. I consulted these notes often, and added to them continually.

I’m doing something similar with the third book in the series, which I’m working on now. I have in my head a general idea of the story’s main themes and where I want it to go. But there are a lot of possibilities, and I just found around a hundred pages I had written a few years ago that I don’t remember. So I’ve stopped writing and am reading--and making lots and lots of notes.

Agnes-NixonThe soap opera doyenne Agnes Nixon once told me, of her soap opera’s “Bible” (the long-term outline for a year’s worth of plots), “it is like a road map. You know you’re leaving from Chicago and ending up in Los Angeles. But you never know what side trips you will take along the way.”



Agnes Nixon

Tomorrow: The political world of Pandora’s Genes

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Friday, May 11, 2012

11. Keeping Track: Continuity and Consistency

The other day, in response to my post on mapping novel locations, a reader sent me a question by email:

When I've tried fiction, the main problem I've had is consistency.  In other words, I would write something on page 98 that was inconsistent with something I had written on page 28.  How do you get around this?  Do you start from the beginning every time you sit down to write more?  Or do you say, who cares?

In another life long ago, when I was one of several writers for a soap opera, there was always someone in charge of “continuity.” This person made sure that when the Miller family sat down to a dinner of roast beef they did not get up three episodes later from a delicious chicken cacciatori. Every novelist needs to be her own continuity expert. 

To answer my reader’s last question first, of course you must care about consistency! One of the surest ways to lose readers is to write a novel with random character or plot changes. Can you imagine a movie in which a character starts out as Nicolas Cage but ends up as John Travolta? (Okay, bad example, since there IS such a movie. Never use Nicolas Cage in an example.) My point is that when you’re dealing with a large cast of characters and a complicated plot, it’s not always easy to remember everything. Here’s what I recommend to my writing students:

  • Make charts and graphs. I do this in addition to the maps I draw of the locations for various scenes. Pandora’s Genes  had three major characters and dozens of lesser characters. It took place in several locations over a period of five years. I pieced together several sheets of paper and made a long timeline that mapped the most important scenes. It showed me where and when everyone was at any given time in the novel.
  • Keep notebooks or index cards—or the electronic equivalent--for each character and plot point. I’m an index-card kind of writer myself, but I know other novelists who keep a small notebook or electronic data-base section for each character and each important plot thread. In Pandora’s Children there is an important subplot about a spy among the Principal’s closest aides. I kept careful notes on the clues I left, to make sure both that they were not too obvious and that I did not forget them later.
  • Be flexible. Sometimes unexpected plot twists will turn up and ruin all your best-laid plans. Or a character will decide to do something you hadn’t foreseen. When this occurs, if the change seems right for the book, then go with it. But always go back and change earlier scenes so that they match up with the new fictional reality. When you do, you’ll find that all those charts and index cards make your job a lot easier.

Tomorrow: Outline or Wing It?

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

10. How Should a Writer Respond to Reviews?

I’m changing the subject today because of two reviews I received recently on Amazon. Like all writers, I’ve had to learn not to take feedback--whether positive or negative-- personally. When the feedback is from an editor, I accept it and work with it, simply and professionally making the requested changes.

On, feedback  from readers as well as professional reviewers is posted along with the book information. This feedback can make the difference between a sale and a click to another page. A couple of weeks ago I received the following review from someone unknown to me, on Pandora’s Genes:

Meh...Interesting plot, lacks skillful writing, and too abrupt of an ending
My title pretty much sums up the book. I really liked the story. The beginning of the book was actually pretty good and I got drawn into it fairly quickly. Once halfway through, I felt like I was being rushed through the plot by the author, wanting to make sure she explained what was going on so we didn't get lost.... Towards the end of the book, it seemed to get even more rushed and lacked any kind of artistic writing skill. It gave the facts, went through the time line and POOF! The End. I will say the plot was really interesting. It could be made into a decent film if anyone ever decided to do so and in this case might be one of the rare movies that's actually better than the book.

This reader gave me three stars, and had some positive things to say, but all I could see was the phrase “lacked any kind of artistic writing skill.” How dare she? I thought. What does she know about skillful writing? She’s probably never written anything more complicated than a grocery list. I have to admit that this review stung. But, as with all feedback, I shoved it into a corner in the back of my mind and returned to working on the third Pandora’s book.She is, after all, just one reader, and most of the other reviews are overwhelmingly positive.

Yesterday, I received this four-star review from someone unknown to me, on The Ptorrigan Lode.:

A nice read
This was definitely a short one..What I found amazing is the author was able to set up a world, several well defined characters, and introduce a well devised conflict in such a short period of time. I found the protagonist self-absorbed (as he should be based on his circumstances) and related well with the course of action that he chose. If the author chooses to expand on the ground work that this story laid, I would purchase it.

Ah, what a difference! This reader is obviously a man of great literary acumen. He GETS what I’m trying to do. I wonder if he’d like to be my Faceboook friend? I will eventually shove this review into that corner in the back of my mind, with all the others, but for now... I’m basking in it.