Category Archives: Publishing

Stretching Beyond the Limit: Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone

Today, I’m sharing with you the first chapter of a novel. Well, it can’t really be called a novel…not yet at least. In my last graduate semester before thesis, my professor gave the class an assignment: we were to write something outside our comfort zone. There were more stipulations than that, but one of the main things I learned from pushing beyond my preconceived limits was how much I enjoyed writing different material.

So, here’s the relatively unpolished first chapter of a detective novel (I hope you enjoy it, and please remember that I worked hard on this chapter and would be disappointed to see my idea taken from me):

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MINE

Chapter 1

The Strangler

The news said the police caught the killer. Some twenty-nine year old guy from Ohio. His alcoholic father abused him as a child. His mother was too high on drugs to care. The news reporters had done their research on this guy. Billy Marcus: a single, white, calculus high school teacher who never stayed at one school for more than three years. Billy stalked Danielle Lewis, raped her, and strangled her. He took her corpse deep into the woods and buried it. The news said he came back and visited the corpse. Did unspeakable things to it.

The news was wrong.

Not about visiting the corpse, or the stalking, the rape, and how Danielle died. Strangled with a white and red polyester rope. Low stretch fiber. Resistant to abrasion. Durable. That rope’s got a nice feel to it.

The news was wrong about Billy. He wasn’t the killer. He was some nobody looking for a few minutes of fame.

If he wanted the attention, the trial, the conviction, the death sentence, he could have it. I didn’t like seeing an innocent man get convicted, but no one forced him to lie to the police. And Billy knew things. He looked guilty.

I picked up the TV remote from the bed and clicked off the television. A moment of quiet. I breathed it in.

And then the whimper came.

I hushed the noise.

It came again.

I rose from the bed and headed for the bathroom. The room’s carpet, a moldy green, and the print on the wall, a cluster of flowers, held the faint imprints of all motel guests before me. The air conditioning unit thrummed in the background, a steady buzz that sucked all the moisture from the air.

My reflection appeared in the rectangular mirror over the faux marble sink. Brown hair, combed back. Brown eyes under thick, straight eyebrows. Square jaw. Cheeks more rounded than sharp. Eyes spaced evenly apart. Clean shaven. A handsome face. Trustworthy.

I smiled at my reflection. No wrinkles formed around my eyes. My cheeks barely rose from their resting position. I told myself to close my eyes slightly, to push up my cheeks more.

Better. That smile looked believable.

The whimper. Muffled. Feminine. Pretty.

I stepped into the bathroom and shut the door. “Good evening,” I said, and turned to the bathtub. A shallow tub. Horrible for any sort of bath. An adult couldn’t stretch out fully in that tub. I preferred the deep claw foot tubs. Something nice about soaking in hot water. Lilac scented bubbles were my guilty pleasure. They left my skin smooth, soft.

“I do apologize for having to restrain you in such an undignified manner.” I closed the toilet seat and sat on it. The tips of my shoes touched the side of the tub. The shoes were black, a cross between boat shoes and casual dress shoes. An intriguing combination, but sturdy and good looking. The type of shoes a man bought when he had money to spare.

“I would not have to gag you, if only you would not scream.” I reminded myself to smile. A woman was in my tub, a beautiful woman. Her hair, a dark, wavy red – not the dyed type, but natural. Her eyes, warm brown, a shade lighter than mine. Nineteen. Freckles lightly dusted her cheeks and collarbones. Her name: Ellen Breen. A sophomore at Maxwell University, she was majoring in physics and had a passion for astronomy.

I enjoyed stars as well. Cygnus, the Swan. Perseus, the Hero. Orion, the Hunter. But Ellen was Cassiopeia, the Queen. Ellen: my Gamma Cas, the main star in the Cassiopeia constellation. A monster of a star, so brilliant and volatile and bursting with energy that it would eventually collapse on itself and then explode. A supernova, outshining all the other stars in the night sky until it burned out and was no more.

A dead star, but still a star and worth visiting. After all, the death of a star made way for the birth of new stars. With so many young stars in the galaxy, it was difficult to choose or to see all of them. Many of the most beautiful stars lay hidden behind dense dust clouds. Only when the radiation-saturated winds ate through the dust did these young stars become visible. By then, they were no longer so young, but nearly ripe. I watched them until they grew ready to go supernova.

How could I miss such a transformation?

I couldn’t.

I was drawn to these women. Nothing to stop me. Nothing anyone could say to prevent these women from going supernova.

I did need to be more careful. Find a new place to keep my dead stars. If Billy hadn’t confessed, the cops would still be looking for Danielle’s killer. If the cops didn’t want to wrap Danielle’s murder up to appease the mayor, the press, the parents, they would realize Billy’s story didn’t add up one hundred percent. For one, he didn’t know how the rope felt. He described it in his interview as coarse.

But I wasn’t going to save his life. I wasn’t going to sacrifice myself for someone who didn’t know the difference between a rough and smooth rope. I didn’t want the death penalty.

The whimper. Big, round eyes. Bambi-eyes. Soft rub of rope against rope.

Ellen’s breasts stretched the front of her crème sleeveless shirt as she pushed against her restraints. The little gold Star of David necklace bounced into the air and then down onto her two small, perfectly round mountains. Many breasts were different sizes. The left a little bigger than the right. The right slightly lopsided. Small imperfections, but mistakes all the same.

“Stop that,” I said, “You do not want to injure yourself.”

Ellen kicked the side of the tub. Mumbled angrily, but the tape wrapped over her mouth prevented any discernable dialogue.

How come Ellen didn’t understand that she was one of the lucky ones? To be chosen, to be plucked from the multitude of stars, to be added to my collection. A gift. She, a treasure, more than the others. Better than them, yet she didn’t comprehend. My Cassiopeia. My queen.

My expression didn’t falter. I dedicated too much time into refining the genial face, the face of a gentleman. The one that said to women, come, you beautiful creatures, you gifts upon this earth, let me lavish you with presents both material and non. I can be so generous because I am wealthy. I’ll spend my wealth on you.

Let me ravish you for all time.

I forget none of you.

Ellen shrieked, a muffled cry, and kicked the tub again. Her bare feet thwacked uselessly against the fiberglass tub.

I met her eyes, and didn’t blink.

In a moment, she quieted and turned away. But the damage, the anger, it swarmed inside me, building to a crescendo. A tidal force.

I rose from the toilet seat.

“We need ice,” I said. If I remained, my anger would best me. Rage would spew forth, and I’d lose control of my hands. My fingers itched for the smoothness of the polyester rope.

Patience, I chided myself as I exited the bathroom. I shut the door behind me, tugged on the knob until it clicked, and then grabbed the beige square ice bucket from the top of the dresser. My fingers warped the bucket’s plastic sides. Careful, I thought. Nothing must be damaged upon our departure.

Outside the air pressed upon my face, my chest. It weighed down my hair. A few strands slipped loose and fell about my eyes. I pushed them back, but they, stubborn, rejected my efforts to appear put together. For the best. This motel was not the sort of place for men like the one I portrayed.

Seven dingy rooms on the first floor. Seven on the second. A narrow set of white painted stairs, the railing slouching sideways, led from one floor to the next. A small main office with a single-paned glass window, and a middle-aged man, balding and who looked more pregnant than the knobby-armed, frizzled haired girl who hung around him. She should flit, all eighty-nine pounds of her, but she slumped against the sea foam colored countertop, her tits, for they did not compare to Ellen’s breasts, two pinpricks pointed at the sticky white floor. A half-burnt menthol cigarette drooped between her thumb and index fingers. When we first arrived at this motel, and I entered the office, with Ellen asleep in my trunk, this girl jammed the butt between her lips and stuck her face in mine. “A light?” she asked.

“I do not smoke. Bad for your health.”

She popped the cigarette out of her mouth and jutted out her hip. A ridiculous gesture. Forced, unnatural and pathetic.

“It’s menthol. Safer. Duh.” She looked at the middle-aged, balding man and jammed her thumb at me. “Can you believe this guy?”

The man didn’t say anything.

“If I offended you, I apologize,” I said. I pressed my hand to my chest, right above my heart. The motion seemed to comfort the girl.

“Yeah, well, whatever.”

“My mother miscarried my baby sister because of smoking menthol cigarettes. I fear I have developed a soft spot when it comes to pregnancy and smoking. What is the saying? Children are our future? We should provide them with the best while we can. They will be taking care of us one day.” I watched as she flicked her cigarette with her index finger. A few ashes fluttered to the floor. “It would be tragic if our children were to die before us, and leave us to fend for ourselves in old age.”

The girl laughed. “I’m never growing old.”

“I do not doubt that.”

Her laughter increased, until it clanged my eardrums. I asked for a room, paid in cash, and picked up the room key.

“See you around,” she said.

I waved and left the office. How unwise her words, her interpretation of mine. Better, though, for her to misconstrue my meaning. I overstepped, said something inappropriate, something strange. Rude, and memorable in a “isn’t he a strange one” way.

I shifted the ice bucket to my other hand, and wiped my forehead with the back of my palm. The sun, fat and bright, suspended high in the cloudless sky, bombarded me. Sweat slid beneath the collar of my shirt.

My mother never smoked. And I would have probably killed any sibling.

The ice machine sat near the pool, an oval concrete menace surrounded by a chain link fence with a gate that never closed. The parking lot encircled the pool, except for the side with the ice machine.

My shoes rapped lightly on the concrete walkway. I turned my back on the pool and lifted the slanted front door of the machine. The machine grumbled and a waft of cold air blasted me. I reached in and lifted the ice shovel.

A laugh, not like the girl’s. Like the stars expanding all at once in the night sky. The bucket slipped from my hand and clattered against the ice. I hastily scooped it up, and dropped the shovel. The door snapped shut, nearly trapping my hand.

By the pool, spinning in circles, her arms stretched out to her hands, her white-blonde hair, a freshly fallen snow bank, swirling around her, her red sleeveless dress eddying about her legs as she laughed, the tinkling of stardust. I hadn’t noticed her before. But she must have been there, hidden behind a dust cloud. Revealed by radiation-drenched winds, though no wind stirred, and I felt no disturbance, no moment of insight where I knew she was going supernova.

Yet, millions of stars burst into supernovas with each laugh, each glint of her smile beneath the sun.

Everything else fell away. All the others meant nothing, black holes that wasted my time and energy. Ellen Breen, nonentity, worthless and damaged compared to her.

Cassiopeia. Not a queen. Nothing like a queen.

Ellen must be cast aside. Because the goddess of all queens entered my life.

My fingers trembled. They never trembled. My heart, what was it doing? It raced. Faster and faster it beat. Louder and louder too, until I feared she heard it.

All the nothing led to her. Everyone I met, every woman, man, child, all spiral galaxies coalescing to create the brightest light in all of space.

I had to make her mine. Forever.

“Stella.”

Shattered. The world returned.

“Come here, you silly girl,” a crone of a woman with a darker shade of blonde hair called from a dark blue minivan. She waved her lanky arm back and forth above her head and honked the horn once. “It’s time to go.”

“Coming, Mom,” she called. She ran for the gate. Her sandals thwacked against her heels. She pushed open the gate. It clanged shut behind her.

It did not bounce back open.

Stella.

Instinct grabbed me, shouted for me to race after her, to snatch her before she reached her mother, to never let her out of my sight. The ice bucket cracked in my hands. Matter less.

Stella.

Stella.

Stella.

Mine.

© Brittany Krueger

(Photo courtesy of Sweetie187.)

What Are You Reading in 2017?

 

After completing my 2016 Goodreads Reading Challenge, I set a new goal for 2017. While this year my goal is to read 20 novels—10 less than last year thanks to a job promotion—I’m excited about figuring out which books I’m going to read. Currently, I’m in the midst of Survival in Auschwitz, an autobiography about a man’s 10 months in a German death camp during WWII. Has anyone read this novel?

Here are five more that are on my list:

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Wool by Hugh Howey

In a ruined and toxic future, a community exists in a giant silo underground, hundreds of stories deep. There, men and women live in a society full of regulations they believe are meant to protect them. Sheriff Holston, who has unwaveringly upheld the silo’s rules for years, unexpectedly breaks the greatest taboo of all: He asks to go outside.

His fateful decision unleashes a drastic series of events. An unlikely candidate is appointed to replace him: Juliette, a mechanic with no training in law, whose special knack is fixing machines. Now Juliette is about to be entrusted with fixing her silo, and she will soon learn just how badly her world is broken. The silo is about to confront what its history has only hinted about and its inhabitants have never dared to whisper. Uprising.

I became excited to read this post-apocalyptic thriller the moment I learned that for someone to be born, someone must die. That sounds ominous—and maybe I’m a bit demented—but whenever there’s a world with that level of sacrifice, I’m intrigued.

Plus, it’s always interesting when an originally self-published novel gets picked up by a big publishing house (Random House) and becomes a New York Times Bestseller. (Remind anyone of The Martian?)

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The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly by Matt McCarthy

In medical school, Matt McCarthy dreamed of being a different kind of doctor—the sort of mythical, unflappable physician who could reach unreachable patients. But when a new admission to the critical care unit almost died his first night on call, he found himself scrambling. Visions of mastery quickly gave way to hopes of simply surviving hospital life, where confidence was hard to come by and no amount of med school training could dispel the terror of facing actual patients.

This funny, candid memoir of McCarthy’s intern year at a New York hospital provides a scorchingly frank look at how doctors are made, taking readers into patients’ rooms and doctors’ conferences to witness a physician’s journey from ineptitude to competence. McCarthy’s one stroke of luck paired him with a brilliant second-year adviser he called “Baio” (owing to his resemblance to the Charles in Charge star), who proved to be a remarkable teacher with a wicked sense of humor. McCarthy would learn even more from the people he cared for, including a man named Benny, who was living in the hospital for months at a time awaiting a heart transplant. But no teacher could help McCarthy when an accident put his own health at risk, and showed him all too painfully the thin line between doctor and patient.

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly offers a window on to hospital life that dispenses with sanctimony and self-seriousness while emphasizing the black-comic paradox of becoming a doctor: How do you learn to save lives in a job where there is no practice?

I’ve always been interested in medicine. I work in pediatric immunology research, so it’s a good thing I enjoy the medical field.

When I first heard about Matt McCarthy and his writings on NPR, I was intrigued. I’m not an MD, but I’ve always wanted to know what it was like to be a doctor fresh out of med school. So, when I discovered this novel, I read the free excerpt on Amazon and was immediately absorbed into this non-fiction story. It seems McCarthy has the rare ability to draw people in, while not being a writer by trade.

I can’t wait to read this refreshingly frank look into a young doctor’s life.

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A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron

This is the remarkable story of one endearing dog’s search for his purpose over the course of several lives. More than just another charming dog story, this touches on the universal quest for an answer to life’s most basic question: Why are we here? 

Surprised to find himself reborn as a rambunctious golden haired puppy after a tragically short life as a stray mutt, Bailey’s search for his new life’s meaning leads him into the loving arms of 8 year old Ethan. During their countless adventures Bailey joyously discovers how to be a good dog. But this life as a beloved family pet is not the end of Bailey’s journey. Reborn as a puppy yet again, Bailey wonders, will he ever find his purpose?

Heartwarming, insightful, and often laugh out loud funny, this book is not only the emotional and hilarious story of a dog’s many lives, but also a dog’s eye commentary on human relationships and the unbreakable bonds between man and man’s best friend. This story teaches us that love never dies, that our true friends are always with us, and that every creature on earth is born with a purpose.

With both my mother and grandmother having loved this book, I must understand what made them enjoy it so much. And, with having a nine-year-old German Shepherd, who follows me everywhere, and who acts like every time I step out the front door I’m leaving him forever, I suspect this novel will make me laugh as much as cry.

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America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

In a compelling, richly researched novel that draws from thousands of letters and original sources, bestselling authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie tell the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph—a woman who kept the secrets of our most enigmatic founding father and shaped an American legacy.

From her earliest days, Patsy Jefferson knows that though her father loves his family dearly, his devotion to his country runs deeper still. As Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, she becomes his helpmate, protector, and constant companion in the wake of her mother’s death, traveling with him when he becomes American minister to France.

It is in Paris, at the glittering court and among the first tumultuous days of revolution, that fifteen-year-old Patsy learns about her father’s troubling liaison with Sally Hemings, a slave girl her own age. Meanwhile, Patsy has fallen in love—with her father’s protégé William Short, a staunch abolitionist and ambitious diplomat. Torn between love, principles, and the bonds of family, Patsy questions whether she can choose a life as William’s wife and still be a devoted daughter.

Her choice will follow her in the years to come, to Virginia farmland, Monticello, and even the White House. And as scandal, tragedy, and poverty threaten her family, Patsy must decide how much she will sacrifice to protect her father’s reputation, in the process defining not just his political legacy, but that of the nation he founded.

Mystery, intrigue, and scandal…all wonderful bits and pieces that shape the most intriguing historical fiction. This novel chronicles Patsy Jefferson’s life from her childhood during America’s Revolutionary War, her teenage years in Paris at the start of the French Revolution, her father’s presidency, and through the War of 1812. This book seems downright delicious!

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Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

This richly imagined novel, set in Hawai’i more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place—and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.

Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i. Here her life is supposed to end—but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.

I’m prepared for this historical fiction, coming-of-age story to be heartbreaking, humorous, heartwarming, authentic, and compelling. I can’t wait to learn about some less known Hawaiian history and culture, and to see how this novel isn’t about death, but life, not despair, but hope. Despite this book being about a leprosy colony, this story is about the strength and endurance of the human spirit.

What books do you want to read this year? Got any suggestions?

(Photos courtesy of Brittany E. Krueger’s collection.)

What Are the 10 Most Influential Books in Your Life?

If you’re like me, it’s difficult to narrow down all the books you’ve read to just ten that have influenced you. However, I think I’ve come up with a pretty good list. Take a peak and let’s see if we have any of the same!

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  1. Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
    This was my first real introduction to vampires, and it has stayed with me ever since. I’ve consciously and subconsciously compared all other versions of vampires to Anne Rice’s creations.

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    2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
    I was in high school when I first read this; the gothic atmosphere, the loneliness, and Jane standing up for herself really spoke to me. I related to her character so much as an adolescent.

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3. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
I’ve always loved running, and when I discovered this book, it was like magic. I was so engrossed by the novel that I wanted to go live with the Tarahumara Indians.

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4. Sabriel (trilogy) by Garth Nix
I rarely reread books. For me to do so, I have to (1) love the novel and (2) have forgotten how the book ended. Not so for this trilogy. First reading this in middle school, none of my classmates had heard of this series. But the worlds, magic, and characters in this dark fantasy series struck a cord with me. I wanted to be part of this story, and, even now, as an adult, I am always drawn back into the tale because of the fantastic writing and the maturity seen throughout the characters.

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5. Daughter of Smoke and Bone (trilogy) by Laini Taylor
This trilogy arrived at the perfect time for me. I was an undergraduate, and I was about to give up on young adult books forever. It seemed that each YA book I read was worse than the one before. The last YA book I read before this trilogy I nearly chucked across the room because of the ridiculousness of the characters. However, this trilogy saved YA books for me. I was immersed from page one. The creativity, the writing, and the pacing were spot on. When the story ended, I felt I’d lost a fantastic world and some phenomenal friends.

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6. Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
I grew up on this series. Starting with my mom reading book one to my brother and I and ending with us fighting over who got to read book seven first (I won), this series holds a special place in my heart.

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7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
I was interested in psychology before this novel, but after reading this I couldn’t learn enough about psychology. This book embodies the nature of humanity’s suffering and insecurities, and how, despite being able to take away a person’s life, you can’t take away his freedom.

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8. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
This novel was like a punch in the gut. It showed how unforgiving nature could be, how easily human life could be extinguished, how human error could turn to tragedy, and how one misstep meant death. It showed what the cost of accomplishing your dream meant, what it took to survive, and what it meant to be a survivor, knowing teammates and friends lost their lives, and wondering if there was anything more you could have done to prevent that.

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9. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
This book goes back to elementary school, but I still own the copy my mom bought me all those years ago; and every time I think of the book or see the cover, I smile. It’s a story about an unusually selfless and caring girl, who transcends the bounds of conformity, while the boy who realizes that the girl’s “in touch with something that the rest of us are missing” and loves her, eventually shuns her, like the rest of the school, because he needs to be accepted by his peers.

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10. The Golden Goblet by Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Another book from elementary school, my fourth grade teacher gave me this novel as a Christmas gift—she left a personalized note in it and everything—because she knew of my love for ancient Egypt, and I think I was her favorite student… But I still have the copy she gave me, and it increased my adoration for ancient Egypt to an almost obsessive level.

What are the 10 books that most influenced you? List in the comments below!

(Photos courtesy of Brittany E. Krueger’s personal book collection.)

“The Shadow of the Wind” Book Review

“A story is a letter that the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise.”

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The Shadow of the Wind is a compulsive page turner. From the opening pages, I immediately knew that I’d love this old-fashioned book saturated with offbeat characters, passionate storytelling, Gothic twists and turns, and tragic, thrilling rushes. Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s book is reminiscent of the great 19th century novels, while maintaining the precarious balance between high-brow literature and commercial fiction.

The novel begins in 1945 in a Barcelona suffering the aftereffects of the Spanish Civil War. Daniel, a 10-year-old boy grieving from his mother’s death, is taken to a secret labyrinth called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books by his bookseller father. In this maze, Daniel chooses one book to care for; he selects a novel titled The Shadow of the Wind by an unknown author, Julián Carax. This choice dramatically shapes his life, sending him from childhood into young adulthood on an elaborate quest to discover the mystery behind why some dark, almost demonic figure is hunting down and burning all of Julián Carax’s books.

A novel about resourcefulness, courage, loss of innocence, love, cruelty, cowardice, murder, and redemption, The Shadow of the Wind mesmerizes as it elegantly unfolds mystery upon mystery, before shooting around breathtaking lurches and blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

(Photo courtesy of Xavi.)

Do Everything But Kill Your Characters: Why Struggle is Vital for Character Development

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When we write, we all have characters that we love. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them. They’re our children, and like all good parents, we want to keep our kids safe. However, when characters are safe, they’re not interesting. More so, readers, and ourselves, don’t get to know who these characters are. We can’t discover what lies at their core. It’s only through the tough times that we get to truly know our characters.

Not long ago, I provided feedback on several chapters for a fantasy novel. These chapters were about midway through the novel, and after having read from chapter one to this point, I found myself not knowing who the protagonist was. Sure, she was a princess, the last of her family (the rest of them having died in peculiar accidents), and was on the run from evil fairies and a traitorous royal court. But her two loyal companions were always there to save her from any attack.

So, while the princess constantly thought about how she had to be brave and kind and show that she deserved the crown, I never got to see her in action. She was always standing around, waiting for her companions to fight off various sinister creatures. I got to a point where I asked the author, “What would happen if the princess was attacked, when there was no one around to save her?”

It turned out that the princess could take care of herself.

It’s easy for characters to think or say they’d act/react one way, but eventually something bad has to happen to them. Only when our characters are forced to act do we uncover their true personalities.

And, once characters face hardship—and the more that they confront—they grow. They can only become better people if what they care about is shredded to tiny pieces. Rip characters’ souls apart and they’ll be forced to build more resilient hopes, dreams, and spirits.

It’s not easy to knock down your characters, not only because you care about them, but because it’s emotionally taxing on you. Some of the hardest scenes I’ve written are when I’m ripping apart my protagonist. I become so emotionally invested in the story that I experience what my protagonist experiences, so by the end of stressful scenes, I am emotionally and physically spent.

But, I continue to write those scenes, because of all the books I’ve read, the best ones are usually those where the characters are torn down. Even if the book is fantasy or science fiction, I can relate to the core of the hardships they face, and that makes me care about the characters.

(Photo courtesy of Ewan Cross.)

How to Write a Novel When You Don’t Have Time

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Often I hear about how people say they don’t have time to write. Their full time job, family, pets, etc. get in the way. I understand, and there are times when I believe that I have to choose between writing and working. However, even though I work full time, maintain a blog, participate in a critique group (which means spending time working on other people’s writing), exercise, and deal with the unpredictable speed bumps life chucks in everyone’s path, I somehow manage to write.

How is it possible to spend time writing, when you don’t have time to write?

Fight through the Sludge

Don’t allow yourself time off from writing. It’s easy to let one day off grow to two days, three days…until the time snowballs into weeks and then months. On the last day of my writing master’s thesis class, my professor told us that, once we step out of the classroom, most of us will never write again. More specifically, my professor was talking about how we wouldn’t write the genre/type of writing we’d just spent years working on to culminate in a novel/short story collection.

At first, I hadn’t believed my professor, but, after staying in contact with some of my classmates, I do. Many of them haven’t written anything creative since thesis…that was about 6 months ago, and, of those that have, they haven’t written much.

Their reason? Life got in the way.

Be Disciplined, Like a Samurai 

Writing a novel or short story takes time and effort. Anyone who writes knows that it’s not easy. Writing is exhausting. It uses a lot of brain energy, and it can be easy to come home from a long work day and just want to veg. I’ve done it. But writing is a skill, and every skill takes discipline.

One of the best ways to become disciplined is to be motivated. Motivation commits you to writing. Maybe a specific character in your story encourages you to write, because you have to tell that character’s tale. Perhaps you’re in a writing group and you’ve got deadlines to meet. Perchance you’re the type of person who’s motivated by visual stimuli. Create a writing space that you have to pass by on a daily basis. You could tape motivational quotes and pictures to the wall above your space.

Remember, as Robert Collier said, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”

If you still think you never have time to write, here are some writers that became famous authors, while working full-time:

Anne Rice

Anne Rice wrote Interview with the Vampire, when she worked full-time as an insurance claims examiner and while she was grieving over the death of her 5 year old daughter.

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll penned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while working. He continued to work, even as he became famous and earned enough money writing to be a full-time author. He taught at Christ Church until late in life, as well as being a mathematician and a photographer.

Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker worked as a civil servant at Dublin Castle for 10 years, while writing for the newspaper the Dublin Evening Mail. He went on to manage Sir Henry Irving’s production company/venue: the Lyceum Theatre. While working as the company’s manager, he wrote and had published his first horror story, and eventually published his most famous work Dracula in 1897. Stoker worked as Lyceum’s manager for about 30 years.

(Photo courtesy of Tony.)

Reading Challenge 2016: Top Book So Far

At the beginning of this year, I joined Goodreads’ 2016 Reading Challenge. In this challenge, you pledge to read a certain amount of books during the year. While some of my friends stated they’d read 50 or even 200 books, I challenged myself to read 30. For me, this is a lot…it’s about a book every two weeks. I’m two books away from my goal, and I’m happy that I’ll complete this goal.

5518988345_9ef6af4df9_oI wanted to share one of my favorite books so far this year:

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

If I could give this book more than five stars, I would.

At first, I was put off by the amount of cursing within the opening chapters (heads up there’s several f-bombs), but I quickly became engrossed with the protagonist Henry’s personality, trauma, and, most importantly, story.

This novel engages readers, and forces them to witness bullying, mental illness, and come to understandings that they would normally otherwise rather not think about. Shaun David Hutchinson uses Henry to send some very important messages to readers: “Remember the past, live the present, write the future” and that we do matter; maybe not to the universe or in the grand scheme of things – all of us will be forgotten in time – but we do matter and because we live the present, we’ll keep on.

After all, we’re the ants. And what do ants do? They keep marching one by one.

There’s a deepness to this story that isn’t initially apparent, but then showcases itself brilliantly through the pain of loss, the presence of new love and the guilt and fear that sometimes accompany that love, and much more.

This novel begins with Henry telling readers about how he’s been abducted by aliens multiple times, and that they’ve now given him a choice: press the button and save Earth or don’t press the button and on 29 January 2016 the world is going to end. The question remains: will Henry press the button?

Though there is a love story within this book, this novel is so much more complex than a YA romance between Henry and Diego. Henry’s ex-boyfriend Jesse – the love of his life – committed suicide. Henry’s mother is a chain-smoking waitress, who cannot stand her one-time dream of being a chef because that dream reminds her too much of Henry’s dead-beat, door-slamming father, who abandoned them. Henry’s brother is a college dropout. The most popular boy in school alternates between bullying and making out with Henry. Henry’s grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s. The list goes on, and it is dark and amazing and heartfelt, and at times when readers need it most, comical.

Insight abounds in this novel, and what’s more is that the insight is conceivable. Usually in YA books, the protagonist possesses an awareness other characters miss, and often that insight is too deep or advanced for that character. However, in this novel Henry struggles with the big life questions. He asks others for answers, and the answers they provide create a well-rounded and realistic picture, with each of their answers reflecting the events that have occurred in their lives and how those events have impacted them. This story and its characters are believable to the point I imagined it as real life. That’s a big part of what makes this novel so engrossing, and what had me smiling, crying, and feeling all the emotions throughout the tale.

This book left my mind reeling with thoughts long after I closed the back cover. Definitely take the time to read this.

I’ve read some fantastic books this year, others that weren’t so great, and one that I would have been happy never picking up. Currently, I’m reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I’m only 10 chapters in, but so far this novel has impressed. It’s reminiscent of 19th century gothic novels and is a novel rife with subplots and breathtaking twists and turns. I can’t wait to finish it.

What’s your favorite novel of this year?

(Photo courtesy of Sweetie187.)

Don’t Mistake Unpreparedness for Writer’s Block: Know What to Write Before You Write

 

Sometimes when you sit down to write nothing comes to you. You stare at the blank screen and you can’t picture anything. Frustration builds until you shove yourself away from your desk and leave writing for later.

Often, this inability to conjure anything to write is termed writer’s block. However, writer’s block isn’t always the culprit behind the inability to write. More often than not, nothing is coming to you because you’re not ready to write.

5033800896_b63b3f63f9_oWhen writing a novel, preparedness is extremely important. You need to know what you want to write about. This doesn’t mean that you have to plan out every chapter in advance. Often you’ll find that the story changes as you continue to write it. But, there are many steps involved with writing a book.

Take a minute to think of them.

What did you come up with?

Some of mine include:

  • Writing a one sentence summary. This boils your entire novel down to its main premise. It gives your novel direction. For example, “A mute snake-breeder becomes embroiled in the chase for a once-presumed extinct snake after discovering a blood-splattered scroll in a half-dug grave.”
  • Ask a boatload of open-ended questions. When jumping into more of the details, I’ll ask myself, “what if,” “who cares,” “how about,” etc. These types of questions help me flesh out the story, and help me spot any plot holes before I write myself into a dead-end. Also, open-ended questions are great for adding sub-plots and complexity to a story, thus making it more realistic.
  • Explore your characters. I usually don’t know all of my characters at the beginning of my story, but I know my main characters. I know what they look like, their backstories, how they’ll act, and more. Having fully fleshed out characters not only helps you know your characters inside and out, but helps you see where the story is going and, even, how much of a role each character should have in the plot. Sometimes the person you thought should be the main character isn’t the best choice.
  • Research. Many times there’s information already out in the world about what you want to write. Take time to explore this information. You never know what useful tidbits you’ll discover that will enhance your story. For example, if you’re writing historical fiction, you need to do intensive research on the time period you’re writing about. If you don’t, the piece won’t feel authentic. Even if you’re writing a futuristic science fiction novel, it’s still important to know what type of technology is realistic in the future. You have to be able to explain where nanites came from or how instantaneous travel is possible, or, if you’re writing a dystopian that occurs after World War III, you need to know what the consequences of setting off nuclear bombs are, etc.

Once you’ve done your research and exploration that blank screen will seem like less of a mountain. Ideas will come to you. Perhaps not immediately, ideas take time to fully form, and it’s likely you’ll discover that more ideas come as you’re writing; you’ll end up going back and adding those new story strands, creating a fuller, more complex, and intriguing story.

(Photo courtesy of NOAA Photo Library.)

Halt! How to Not Lose Readers on Your First Page

 

When it comes to enticing readers (or literary agents) to read your novel, the first page is extraordinarily important. Many people, including agents, believe that they can tell whether a book is worth reading from the first page. This means that your first page has to deliver what a reader expects it to.

495969512_f317d59719_oThink about how many times you’ve gone into a bookstore, the library, or onto Amazon in search of the next book you’re going to read. You probably first look at the title and the book cover. If those two aspects draw you in, then you read the blurb. If you’re still interested, you’ll open the book or, if on Amazon, go to the free preview, and check out the first page. If the first page doesn’t impress, then you move on to the next book. After all, why would you stick around to read an entire novel, if the first page isn’t interesting?

So, what can you do to make your first page enticing?

While there’s no hard-and-fast rules, certain elements can help or hurt your first page. Oftentimes, starting a novel with dialogue or weather will not catch readers’ interest. Readers want to picture what is happening. Have you ever read a scene where two people are sitting somewhere and having a conversation? The conversation may be intriguing, but you have no idea where the two people are or what the two people look like? Or, maybe it’s the opposite, where you have so much description that you’re overloaded. You can probably think of a novel where the author spends the first pages describing the weather, the house, the landscape…and nothing else happens. Nothing occurs that sets the scene in motion.

When it comes to writing a novel, readers want and expect the novel to read like a movie. They want scenes to be visual, as if a camera is guiding them.

Why is this?

Because readers want to be immersed in the story. In essence, readers want to be shown a story instead of told it.

How do you go about writing a scene like a movie?

Think about scenes the way a director would. Where should the camera be angled at this moment? Where is every character positioned in this scene? If something happens at point A, how does that effect point B? For example, your two protagonists (sisters) are fighting a gang of five people. The younger sister is stabbed. This effects the older sister’s actions. She may get distracted, and so gets punched in the face. Does the camera catch the younger sister getting stabbed, or is the camera focused on the older sister, so that the older sister, and readers, only hear the younger sister scream? It’s only when the older sister whirls around to look at the younger sister that she and readers realize the younger sister’s been injured.

When combining the camera technique with a novel’s first page, set the scene with a brief camera shot. This shot shows where the character is by using sensory detail. By setting the scene, your readers can follow what is occurring.

Notice that I said, “occurring,” instead of “about to occur.” Begin the first page in the middle of an action. Readers don’t want to be told that something is going to happen; they want to be immersed immediately in what is happening. Here’s a great opening line from Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett: “The small boys came early to the hanging.”

This line throws readers into the story. Something morbid is occurring, and a group of children are about to witness a horrendous act that will change their worldview. Readers want to know more.

No matter what, the camera should never feel like it’s stuck in one place. You want to choose the best angle for each shot. A close in view will limit what readers’ experience, while a faraway shot will give readers a bigger picture view. However, while a close in shot will showcase small, vital details, a bigger picture will pass over the details for a more bird’s eye view.

You want readers to notice what you want them to see. Give readers enough information to make them want to know more.

(Photo courtesy of Stephen.)

When You Have Too Many Characters, Let the Zombies Loose

 

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I’ve been commenting on a friend’s work in progress. It’s a fantasy novel, and the number of characters is large. The novel is the first in a planned seven book series, and many of the characters are important. There are ten children/teens and three adults, for a total of thirteen main characters.

While there is no firm rule about how many characters to include in a novel, oftentimes fewer characters is better. Fewer characters tend to mean increased readability and emotional power.

When you have too many characters, several things can happen:

  • Reader confusion. While you have thoroughly thought out your story, readers haven’t. They don’t know all the ins and outs of every single character. As more characters get involved, plots and relationships grow more complex. It’s a lot easier for readers to forget what’s going on. Characters are forgotten and readers get frustrated.

 The most recent chapter I commented on for my friend’s book was one scene that contained ten characters. The chapter was about twenty pages because my friend wanted each character to get an equal about of time in the limelight. However, this novel is in limited third-person point of view, which means that the story is told through the eyes of one character. This sole character should have the lion’s share of the story. By my friend attempting to give all the characters equal show time, the protagonist’s voice was lost in the shuffle.

  • Tedium takes hold. When you have a large cast of characters, you need to take time to introduce them all. Characterization is pivotal. But, each character should get a percentage of readers’ attention. The more important a character is the more she should be in the story. Spending too much time explaining isn’t interesting. You don’t want readers to say that your novel was slow.

Many of my friend’s novel chapters are intense. I want to keep reading. Yet, I find that the characters spend too much time conversing. I want action, and too often I get five or more characters in a scene and for some reason all of them have to voice their opinion or I have to know what each one is doing at all times. This slows down the action and the tension.

  • Too much fluff. Writing characters is fun, as is creating playful banter and showcasing each character’s viewpoint, for the writer. Readers are only interested in characters that serve a purpose. If you’ve got characters in your story that don’t add to the plot, get rid of them. It’ll do your book good. The tighter your cast is, the more impactful your story will be.

As I’ve been commenting on my friend’s chapters, I’ve used track changes to delete swaths of text. At first I felt bad, but after a while, I realized that what I was doing was cutting out the fluff. There are so many characters that many times the important parts of the plot were pushed to the side. And, too often, when I wanted to know what the protagonist was thinking and feeling, I couldn’t find the protagonist anywhere in the story.

Having a large cast of characters is fine, as long as you’re honest with yourself. Do you need all those characters? How many of those characters will be in the story’s climax? Will anyone miss character 13 if you cut him out?

Like the title says, when you’ve got a huge cast, it might be time to let the zombies chow down on a few of your characters.

(Photo courtesy of Birgit Fostervold.)