Ask the Authors: Publishing


We’ve already taken a look at the different publishing arenas in my series Pros and Cons of Traditional vs Independent vs Self-Publishing, so this installment will be a brief discussion on the topic that may repeat some of that information. Some of our panelists here also participated in that series, so if you’d like to take a more in depth look you can visit my interview with Tim Baker, or see what Art Rosch has to say, or discover Jordan Elizabeth‘s take on it, or check it out from the beginning and move on from there.

Regarding the whole publishing thing, DeAnna Knippling: I can’t answer the questions directly (nnnnnn), but if you want, here’s a blanket statement to cover the week’s stuff:

Okay, I’m deadly bored of these kinds of questions.  I know you need to ask them, but I’ve answered them so often that I really don’t have much to say other than, “Do what you want!  Mix it up!  Stir the pot!  Try something new!  Don’t try something new!”  I feel like authors get so wrapped up in “what is the secret trick to making a bajillion dollars?!?” that they stop moving forward on their journeys as writers.  The second you stop learning and growing, you’re dead.  Some of your growth comes in the publishing and marketing areas, that’s true, but writers get obsessed with success over quality, and they burn out or become repetitive cheesemongers.  And then they push forward without learning about copyright and contracts and rights and get screwed over by the people who are supposed to be “helping” them.  It’s nuts.  Read The Copyright Handbook, stop whining about having to write synopses and bios and blurbs, spend some time studying, and read the fine @#$%^&* print.

Some, like DeAnna Knippling, feel this topic is one of many which has been done to death. Of course, it has, because the rise of digital pubishing changed the game for authors and would be authors, restructuring the playing field, so today’s struggling authors may not even be sure of the rules. In today’s publishing world, this is a delimma every author has to face and we’re all looking for answers. Upcoming authors are trying to figure out this whole thing and decide which publishing route is best for them. Published authors whose books aren’t selling as well as they had hoped wonder if they made the right choice and entertain thoughts of going ‘the other way’ next time. Let’s start out this discussion by seeing what kind of mix we have on our panel.

Are you a traditionally published, small press published or self-published author?  

Jordan Elizabeth: I have books out with three small presses: Curiosity Quills, Clean Reads, and CHBB.

Cynthia Vespia: I’m what’s called a hybrid. I’ve been both small press published and now I’m mostly self-published. But the holy grail is always to land a contract with one of the big names in publishing.

Carol Riggs: All three. I have two traditionally published book with Entangled Teen, which is a smaller publisher but a notch above “small press” in my opinion. For example, they distribute with Macmillan, and my debut novel, THE BODY INSTITUTE, was featured in Barnes & Noble stores. THE LYING PLANET is also published by Entangled, while BOTTLED is published via a small press, Clean Reads. Then I’ve self-published two of my five-book series of JUNCTION 2020. I hope to release the third in the series this summer.

Chris Barili: Yes. I am a true hybrid author, with a traditional book sale (small publisher, but traditional) and a self-published series.

Janet Garber: Self Published via Lulu.

Follow-up: Would you talk a little bit about Lulu. How do they measure up as a publishing platform? What services do they offer their authors?

Janet Garber: Researching the different options was confusing. I probably decided on Lulu because I liked the salesman and also I did not find many complaints online at the time. I would not say that my approach was very scientific, but the results were more than satisfactory. I do think there are probably much cheaper options particularly if one is tech-savvy and confident about a DIY approach. I purchased additional service of press release — they basically just took what I wrote. They were supposed to send it out to appropriate outlets, but I was not at all satisfied with the outlets they approached. This was a waste of about $400!  Buyer beware!

They also offer proofreading and editing – I did not feel I needed either but I did invest in a private developmental editor and that was money well spent. As part of the LULU package, they distribute your book. So my novel is available on Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Ingram in paperback and ebook.
Margareth Stewart: This sounds quite intriguing for me as I have been published in many forms. I was traditionally published by Chiado Press – with my first book I have divorced, so now what? (Portuguese Edition). I self-published twice as it was taking too long to receive a positive answer from English Publishers. When I had my first novel ready, I did not want to self-publish – I wanted the experience of having someone from an out source to read Open and say: “Ok, let´s publish it” – Open/Pierre´s journey after war by Margareth Stewart was published by Web-e-books at the end of 2017. So from the experience above, nowadays I would say we all want recognition in a certain form. This may come through publishers, agents, readers, amazon – it does not matter – as long as it comes. Writing is an art waiting to being read.
The publishing journey is different for every author. We’ve all heard the sucess stories of a book that got miraculously got picked up by one of the big five and turned into a movie in a whirlwind of activity, and all the author had to do was type out the words. But for most of us, it isn’t that easy. We struggle and climb up from the bottom of the literary barrel, vying for the attention of either publishers or readers, trying to get our books onto the best seller lists, or at least sell well enough to be profitable.
thumbnail.two books
Many of you may already be familiar with my story. I sold a poem in 1996, when we still submitted via snail mail, but decided it wasn’t profitable for me until the rise of the computer age and digital publishing. I knew I wanted to write, so I landed gigs where ever I could, including the content factories, such as Demand Studios and I founded an online writng group, I started this blog, Writing to be Read, and I went back to school and got my M.F.A. in Creative Writing. I self-published Last Call as an experiment. After getting several short stories and poems published, last April I found a small press publisher for Delilah, Dusty Saddle Publishing. Since then, I have become a college level English lecturer, and I’m working on increasing my marketing and promotion knowledge in order to promote the sales of my books, because with a small press, that’s pretty much up to the author. We all had to start somewhere. Let’s ask our panel members about their rise to get where they are now.

Would you share the story of your own publishing journey?  

Jordan Elizabeth: I feel as if I have written forever.  It wasn’t until college that I started taking my writing more seriously.  I queried agents until I finally found a home at the Belcastro Agency.  It was a short while after that my friend and fellow author Eliza Tilton introduced me to Curiosity Quills Press.  Another friend and fellow author, Cathrina Constantine, introduced me to CHBB.

Cynthia Vespia: When I was a senior in high school I picked up a copy of Dean Koontz’ Intensity from the library and I was immediately hooked. When I finished reading it, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to pull emotions from people the way Dean Koontz had done for me. (I’ll jump ahead here so I don’t drag on) Flash forward to the completion of my first novel The Crescent. I sent it around to different agencies, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s old agent wound up reading it, but nothing panned out. I remember coming very close to a deal with a local publishing house early on in my career but they opted to go another way. But I had a finished book, and I wanted to see what it would look like in print, so I self-published when self-publishing wasn’t cool yet. But that little book has gone on to create some great attention and is in the middle of pre-production for a movie.

My small press experience hasn’t been ideal which is why I’ve gone back to self-publishing. The one thing I will say about my small press journey is it got my series Demon Hunter in front of a lot of people and I wound up being nominated in 2009 for a Best Series award.
Carol Riggs: It took me 11 years, more than 350 rejection letters, and twelve previously written novels until my debut novel was taken on by an agent and sold to Entangled Teen. During those 11 years, I had tons of writing, rewriting, frustration, and refusing to quit going on. The road was rocky even after my debut, THE BODY INSTITUTE, got sold to Strange Chemistry, an imprint of the UK publisher, Angry Robot. Five months before my book was to come out, they closed down Strange Chemistry, and my agent and I had to scurry around and start the whole submission process over again. Pretty tooth-gnashing!

Chris Barili: My first fiction sale was a western short story called “Yellow” that I wrote for my first summer semester of my MFA studies. That story sold to The Western Online that fall, and I only mention it because 13 short story sales later, it remains the starting point for me selling fiction. My novel Smothered (as B.T. Clearwater) was originally my MFA thesis. It was a standalone romance, and I had no plans for it until Winlock Press (part of Permuted Press) held a contest to find books to premier their supernatural romance lineup. I entered and won, so not only did the book go on sale for e-books, but through Permuted’s deal with Simon and Shuster, a limited print run took place, as well, meaning–book signings at Barnes and Noble!

My Hell’s Butcher series of novellas is self-published, and I did that for the simple reason that there just aren’t markets for novellas out there in the traditional world. And since I wanted to try my hand at self-publishing, I decided the series would be my foray into that battle.

Janet Garber:  I researched the different companies online, called a few, and went with Lulu.  I was under a deadline because I wanted to sell my book at a professional conference and Lulu came through, publishing my book in a short five weeks. I was actively involved in proofing very very carefully and am happy to say end result was a fine looking book with a wonderful cover.

Margareth Stewart: I come from Academics which is a hard field to be published and to write something original. Scientific papers are  full of rules. To write a 15-page-article, it is necessary to read around 15,000 words or more, and to process it all with a very unique view. It is a though and painful process. So, when I got into the fiction world – Oh, I thought: “Heaven, I’m in heaven, And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak…”. Difficulties are part of the process. Keep writing and keep reading.

In today’s publishing world, the question of whether to go the traditional route, search out a small press with interest in your book, or to go ahead and self-publish and get your work out there is something every author has pondered at one time or another. Chances are a publisher, either taditional or small press, is not going to come knocking down your door to publish your book. Although there are authors who have had a previously self-published picked up by a publisher, it is not the norm, and although not like it once was, self-published authors may still carry a bit of stigma with publishing houses. Let’s take a look at how our panel members tackled the delimma.

What made you decide to go with traditional/small press/self-publishing?  

Jordan Elizabeth: I was hoping for a traditional publisher, but I’m thankful to my friends who have found me homes with small presses.  It seems to be true what they say about small presses being more family-oriented and helpful.

Cynthia Vespia: I went back to self-publishing because #1 the small press companies I was working with all closed their doors, and #2 because I had a very specific vision in mind for what I wanted to do with Demon Hunter when I got my rights back. But I have a few new ideas in the works that could be very successful mainstream properties, so I’m looking to go back to the traditional publishing route and finally capture that holy grail.

Carol Riggs: I think the traditional publishing makes me feel more accomplished, like my books are of better quality. I know that’s not necessarily the case, but to have professionals rooting for your writing is really reassuring and gratifying to me. For my self-published books, I’m using my JUNCTION 2020 series to grow my newsletter subscription by giving away book 1 as a freebie incentive. Find it on my website at!

Janet Garber:  I was very impatient to see my book in print and hold it in my hands. So much work had gone into it, years and years of procrastination too, and I wasn’t getting any younger. For these reasons I did not even consider traditional publishers. I still hesitate on going that route because I do not want to wait 2-3 years to see my Paris novel in print, the time to secure an agent and then a publisher.  My first (nonfiction) book was traditionally published by Silver Lining Press, a branch of Barnes & Noble, and that book was brought out very quickly; I did not need an agent since they approached me with the offer to do a book, etc.

In the self-publishing arena, which platforms have you found good to work with? How do you deal with KDP’s exclusivity clause, which states that your work may not appear on any other platform?

Art Rosch: The KDP Select option IS exclusive but operates for 90 days.  There’s an auto-renew function, and if you don’t want to be enslaved by it, make sure that it is not checked.  I tried it for a few cycles.  I had to remove my book from Smashwords and go into the Dashboard to Channel Manager and remove distribution channels like Apple, Barnes and Noble, etc.  In any case, my books didn’t  sell.

I like Smashwords approach and the universality of their formats.  But no one competes with Amazon.  I haven’t published any physical books yet, but I have a bit of change on hand and I think I”ll give it a go.  Everyone has their favorite provider of such services, so there’s plenty of choice.  Publish-on-demand.  I have no demand.  I have a more serious issue, it’s a literary one, a revision of Chapter One of my autobiographical novel.  I don’t care for it at the moment.  A book begun in 1976 and I’m still revising it.  Heh!

 Cynthia Vespia: I use Amazon for ebook and print. I also have my work on Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, and I’ve used LuLu for some hardcover print because Amazon didn’t have that option at the time. I’ve heard that Draft 2 Digital is the place to have your ebooks as well, but I haven’t looked at it yet.

For the KDP clause what I have been doing is using it for a new release and then not renewing the enrollment. I’d rather have my work in as many spots as possible.

Although you are self-published, do you still long for the esteem of a traditional publisher? Why or why not?

Janet Garber: Since I have published widely in multiple genres and have one book traditionally published, I’m not craving validation from a traditional publisher. The appeal is mainly the feeling that a traditional publisher would sell more of my books and be better equipped to setting up opportunities for promotion (book tours, speaking engagements, etc.) Let’s not forget hybrid publishers – not sure where they fit in.

What are your thoughts on small presses? What are the pros and cons? Do you curse them or sing their praises?

Cynthia Vespia: I’ve worked with a few small presses and TBH it wasn’t ever anything that wowed me in terms of packaging. As a graphic designer I can do my own covers, and there are more than a few freelance editors whom I can hire to polish the manuscript. I never saw being under the label of a small press to be more beneficial to going indie. They just did not have the means to promote my work in a manner any better than I could do myself. Actually, it really tied my hands sometimes because if I wanted to do a sale or bring some physical copies to an event I had to go through the small press as wait. In the indie publishing world you are in charge of it all. I like that freedom of movement. I will say the one good thing about a small press would be if they have the means to get you into a bookstore or a library because most of those retailers frown upon the POD style of print that most indie authors use.

Traditional publishing has always been a tough road, and with the rise of independent publishing, I think it has gotten even tougher. Although the ‘big five’ are still out there, many traditional publishing houses and small presses are finding it hard to stay in the game with the rise of the ebook and digital publishing. Independent bookstores, as well as some of the larger chains of brick and mortar stores have folded in recent years.

According to Author Earnings’ Print vs. Digital Report, independent authors walk away with a bigger piece of the pie, overall, than traditionally published authors. Pair that with the continuous upward struggle to get noticed by traditional publishers, it is no wonder so many authors are publishing independently, even though by doing so they are taking on multiple roles that traditional publishers would cover, such as covers, marketing and promotion, etc… Let’s see if our panel members agree.

What do you see as the pros and cons of independent/traditional publishing? 

(First from those in favor of the traditional route): 

Jordan Elizabeth: The best pro I can see for traditional publishing is that you get help with marketing.  They might not hold your hand, but they will give you guidance.  A con is that you don’t make as much off ads as you would if you self-publish.

Carol Riggs: Obviously, an author has more control over writing content and cover art with indie publishing. We can make more money per book, although often a traditional publisher can help market an author, so sometimes more books are sold overall; maybe that evens out, I’m not sure. I do know authors who have done awesomely with both indie and traditional publishing. Which path you take depends on what your needs and goals are. But a definite downside to indie is you do ALL the marketing yourself, and you’d better have or hire a good editor, or quality will suffer and your book’s reception likewise. Authors being in a rush to get their books out before they’re ready gives indie publishing a bad name. Editing and polishing are essential.

(Now let’s here from the independent publishing fans):

Cynthia Vespia: There’s a lot of pros to indie publishing. As I said, you have complete control over your own work. It allows books that might never see the light of day get out to readers who enjoy the story. On the other hand, that’s the same con. There are so many people out there writing books now, and they aren’t taking the time to polish them before they get published so you get a lot of, dare I say “garage sale junk” out there. Writing is a business like anything else. You have to take the time to learn everything about it from the craft of writing, to presentation, to marketing. And that isn’t strictly for indie authors either. If you get traditional or small press published you still need to be your biggest fan to get your work out there. In a sea of books yours needs to stand out.

(And from those who have dipped into both publishing arenas):

Chris Barili: Indy publishing is great if you want control, want higher royalty cuts, and don’t like the “gatekeeper” system, but it is a LOT of work. And money. I spend between $500 and $600 publishing each Hell’s Butcher novella. That’s money I’ll never get back, as they are very  unlikely to round up a big enough audience on their own. And as an Indy author, all that marketing, publicity, and so forth — that’s on you. And I suck at it.

The traditional route costs you little or nothing out of pocket, but you give up some control, and of course it takes a MUCH longer time. I was fortunate with Winlock , as they got my e-books out in 3 months. Paperbacks a year later. A traditional publisher would take 18 – 24 months. Self-publishing about a month, probably.

Janet Garber: Pros: [With the traditional route] many people are involved in evaluating your book, making developmental suggestions and edits; these people are very savvy about the publishing world and what appeals to readers; the publishers hopefully undertake some degree of marketing for you or at least guide you to getting best bang for your book in terms of marketing dollars spent.

Cons: effort required to send queries to agents and wait-wait-wait for a positive response; possibility that agent or publisher could change their minds about publishing your book after you’ve invested a lot of time on pleasing them; need to do multiple rewrites and revisions that may alter what you wanted to say and how you wanted to say it.

It seems each publishing avenue has its advantages and disadvantages. Traditionl publishing is a tough road to travel, but it carries the advantages of having available editors, cover artists and media coverage, as well as possible prestige in some areas. While it may be at least a little bit easier to get noticed by a small independent press, the advantages are neglible, depending on the press. While some provide editing and cover artists, others don’t even do that. Most will provide some marketing and promotion, but even that isn’t guarunteed, and you may have to give up control over your work. In self publishing, you maintain control of your work, but you also have to hire out for editing and cover artists, and take on the role of marketer or pay to have it done, as well.

Whether you choose to seek out and strive for a traditional publisher, aim your efforts toward small presses, or do it all yourself to get your work out there and maintain control over it, we all have to find ways to make our writing stand out amongst a diluge of other writers and authors. Most of that must come from craft, but choosing the right cover image and giving your book a killer title help, too. But no one will ever pick up yoru book and read it unless they know it’s there, so marketing and promotion are a bigger here. We have a segment coming in about three weeks on that topic, but for now be sure and drop by next Monday, when we’ll be talking about the differences in genres.

If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.

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Ask the Authors: Setting



In today’s installment of Ask the Authors, the panel will talk about setting and world building. Setting is one of the three basic elements of story, but one that is often overlooked. We spend hours plotting and developing characters, but it is important for us to give just as much attention to our settings. Through our writing, we can take readers to places both real and imagined. As authors, it is our job to paint a clear picture for our readers with our words, whether taking them to real locations requiring accurate descriptions or to whole worlds that spring from our creative imaginations, which need to be illustrated to come alive for them. Setting is important because readers must be able to immerse themselves within the world of the story for total buy-in. If readers don’t buy into our world, past, present or future, real or created, they aren’t going to read very far. Our job is to allow them to believe, and setting may be a starting point to do that.

What tools or strategies do you use in world building for your stories?

Carol Riggs: Sometimes it’s helpful to base even a fantasy or sci-fi novel on a real place or photo, then branch out from there. I use Google maps a lot (my latest novel is set around St. Louis, MO), where I can visually see where things are, and can often zoom into a street view of where I want to be. Awesome! I research places online; living with technology makes writing so much easier.

World locations

When the setting is a real one, whether past, present or future, knowledge of the location is necessary to describe in a way that readers familiar with the area, so research is necessary. Having experienced a location first hand can make it easier to visualize ourselves, and relate that vision clearly for our readers. Authors who write about their hometown or other locations they know quite well, are following the age old advice to write what you know, and it may pay off for them, if it helps provide a clear vision for the story setting.

Have you ever had places that you travel to end up in your books?

DeAnna Knippling: It’s usually the reverse.  I write about someplace and then try to travel there.  I totally geek out about seeing what my character saw.
Jordan Elizabeth: All the time!  I based Secrets of Bennett Hall after my visit to Hyde Hall near Cooperstown, NY.
Janet Garber: What I love most about writing and travel is that every experience, good or bad, can be woven into a story, used to enrich a setting. Nothing is wasted. My experiences living abroad (outside the U.S.) definitely have enriched my writing and given me incalculable insight into “foreiAgn” cultures. My next novel takes place in Mexico and in France and I was able to write about the locations with a specificity impossible to someone who had not lived in these countries.
Cynthia Vespia: In a way, yes. I was traveling to Alcatraz in San Francisco for a trip and at the same time I was in the middle of writing my thriller Sins and Virtues which opens with an escape from a maximum security prison. While I was at Alcatraz I went inside one of the cells to take a picture, as you do, and I swear something in there followed me home. When I returned to my novel I started seeing images inside my head of an attempted prison break from Alcatraz. The images were clear as day, and seen through the eyes of a middle-aged man. My character was a young female so it wasn’t just a case of a really good imagination coming to life…this felt like something else entirely. I felt this other presence through the duration of writing Sins and Virtues and it only left when I completed the book. True story.
Chris Barili: Of course. In fact, if I’m writing in the real world, I try to set things in places I have been, and preferably places I know well. Even when I’m writing in a fictional world or universe, though, the setting takes on elements of the places I’ve been, cultures I’ve experienced, and so on.  B.T. Clearwater’s current work-in-progress takes place in Denver, as did Smothered.  
Carol Riggs: I haven’t ever traveled anywhere exotic, unusual, or outside the U.S., but for instance I’ve been to (and lived on) the Oregon coast, so a few of my novels are set there. I’ve been to L.A.; one of my novels is set there but a futuristic version of it. Most of my novels are fantasy or sci-fi, so they are otherworldly and not set in real places anyway.
Art Rosch: Travel is good for writers.  Meeting other people is good for writers.  Any experience that engages the writer with the world is good for writers.  What would we write about if all we we did was hide out in our little cubbyholes and watched TV or played video games?
Fantasy Lake
In many cases however, we are called by our stories to write about places we haven’t been and are not familiar with. Although first hand experience is preferable, it is sometimes necessary to research a location without physically visiting it. Such research can lend a feel of authenticity to your story, if your research is thorough and you select details that enhance your story.
In a story we are often asked to create images for the reader of places we may not have experienced ourselves. When have you had to do that?
DeAnna Knippling: All the time.  Google maps is my friend.
Jordan Elizabeth: Most of my books require that because I write fantasy.  I like to imagine there is magic all around us, so that helps me in describing what the magic is like.
Janet Garber: When I write speculative fiction, short stories, obviously I have to make up and populate an alien world. I try to have as much fun as possible; in fact I label this “silly sci-fi.” A forthcoming story in Spectacle Magazine, entitled Seapocalypse, is about a fed-up seahorse who doesn’t like the division of labor in his household. “Shishkosh” (Newtown Literary and Tigershark) tells the story of an earthling of the future who crash lands on a very strange planet.
Cynthia Vespia: My fantasy series Demon Hunter is set in medieval times in places that didn’t really exist. That’s the fun of writing fantasy or sci-fi, or even some contemporary settings. You get to make up what it looks like. In that case, I generally will draw from places that I have been and embellish them with whatever I need to move the scene. If it happens to be a place that exists in reality that I haven’t been to then I will research it online. For instance, one of my early works had a meeting at a place called Musso & Frank in Hollywood. It is a very well known restaurant but I have never actually been there. Because it is so well known I wanted it to be described the right way, so I did my due diligence and researched the hell out of it!
Chris Barili: The entire Hell’s Butcher series so far has consisted of settings I haven’t actually seen, from Creede, CO to places in Maryland and Virginia. And not only were they PLACES I’ve never been, but during times I did not experience. So I had to immerse myself in research to get the right flavor for setting, both physical and culturally.
Carol Riggs: Yes, a lot! I write fantasy and sci-fi, so I love using my imagination to make up new places and experiences. Stories set on other planets, or even a world similar to Earth—but with magic or an unusual twist added. Fantasy novels in general tend to be set in a kind of medieval-flavored setting, more primitive with castles and huts/cottages and what not.
Sometimes it’s helpful to base even a fantasy or sci-fi novel on a real place or photo, then branch out from there. I use Google maps a lot (my latest novel is set around St. Louis, MO), where I can visually see where things are, and can often zoom into a street view of where I want to be. Awesome! I research places online; living with technology makes writing so much easier.
What are your favorite settings to write about?
DeAnna Knippling: Victorian England and parts abroad.  I love writing crime…and these people were criminals, pretty much just top to bottom.  But a close second is America during the Roaring 20s.
According to, there are four methods for revealing setting: through motion, letting your setting unfold as your character moves through the scene; through your character’s experience, or what he or she knows, which may be a good reason to use multiple POVs to show how different characters see their surroundings; through your character’s feelings, similar to using the character’s experience, letting his or her mood influence how readers see the setting, or through the senses and the use of sensory detail.
Summer Beach
I think we all reveal setting through motion, even when we’re not doing it intentionally, but I think the last is most effective. While not all readers will relate to the experiences your character has had, or whatever has put your character into such an angry mood, all readers can relate to sensory information, so they are more likely to form an accurate mental picture from the details of sight, taste, touch, sound and smell. Let’s see if our panel members agree.
What kind of details do you like to add to create a mental picture of setting for your reader?
DeAnna Knippling: Smell.  Food.  Texture…temperature.  Weather.
Jordan Elizabeth: I love smell.  Sometimes we take smell for granted in real life, but adding a smell to a story can really bring it to life.
Janet Garber: The gold standard: appeals to the senses.
Cynthia Vespia: I always remember to include the 5 senses. It rounds out a better picture if you can get a real feel for the place that isn’t just a visual painting from your mind but also has depth and reality to it.
Chris Barili: I tend to be a minimalist. Until I’m not. I try to use as many of the senses as possible, without stretching or forcing it, and I like metaphorical description. “The hills lay like slumbering beasts in the distance.” Things like that to paint a picture for the reader.
Carol Riggs: I like to add sensory images, like smells or sounds. I also think it helps a reader get a better picture of what a place is like if there is a comparison added. For instance, if a set of buildings are arranged in a horseshoe shape. I tend to be a minimalist as far as setting. I myself get bored when reading a description if it wanders on past one paragraph, and my rough “rule” for my own description is to keep it to three sentences. Any more than a short paragraph seems overdone (if not interspersed with action or dialogue).
Would you like to share a brief excerpt from one of your best setting descriptions?
DeAnna Knippling: I’m not sure about “best” but here’s one:

There was an armchair sitting at right angles to the wheelchair; he sat in it, and the receptionist set the tray in front of them, then poured.  The teacups had saucers to them, and delicate gold spoons in case you wanted to stir sugar into your tea.  Not a single rattle.

The room smelled of flowers, not the sickly-sweet artificial scent of “flowers” but green things, growing things.  Roses, maybe, not the kind that you got at the flower shops but the real ones that used to grow along the sides of the road with bees swarming around them, back when you got more than a handful of bees in the summertime.

The tea smelled faintly of tea, which always struck Frank not smelling like anything at all.  He liked the smell of coffee better.  Coffee smelled good, even when you knew it was going to be terrible.  Alice leaned forward a little.  The way she moved made Frank think she was in a lot of pain.

“Can I get that for you?”

“Thank you, dear, if you would.”

Janet Garber: From In a Tizzy:

Spinning in a 360 degree circle, arms raised like a little girl, I could view impossibly fluffy clouds touching down on the horizon and two magnificent volcanoes, Popocatépetl and Citlaltépetl, their views unobstructed by skyscrapers, highways, power lines or telephone cables. So this is what the sky looks like! I spun and spun, it was all sublime.

I was the darling novia, outfitted in a dazzling white Mexican blouse festooned with brightly colored embroidered flowers and sporting faded blue jeans with two sexy patches I’d sewn on to hide a rip, two fish swimming in the neighborhood of my crotch. I wore my yellow work boots and pinned my signature long hair up, off my neck, as a concession to the blazing sun.

I sat on the grass in the sun shunning sunglasses and hat since I never burn—all I ever get are more freckles—and I watched Pierre play soccer with his scientist colleagues.  Game over, he sauntered over to me—I watched him slowly cross the field, swinging his arms—so sexy and smiling and seductive and . . .short?

“I never noticed,” I confided that afternoon, “but you’re rather short.” How could I have missed that?

“What are you saying, Foolish Talking Bird?” He laughed and pulled me in for a kiss. “I’m at least 170 cm.”

I pushed him away and looked around; our friends made a show of turning their heads in the other direction. “No, you’re not, Skinny Little Laughing Skeleton.” I mocked. “You liar, you!”

By way of answer, he lifted me and swung me around until I was breathless. Taking my hand he ran with me across the fields to our dusty little car. As we approached, I looked at him questioningly. “No more lessons for you, Lady. You’ve been a bad girl.”  Well, during our previous lesson on driving standard shift, I had jumped out of the car three times, slamming the door each time. He’d done the same. Either I was hopeless or he was a bad teacher. The latter is unlikely judging by his popularity with the physics staff and the students. “Oh, please, one more chance to strip the gears!” I cried out. [©2017 janet garber, from WIP novel]

Cynthia Vespia: Here is a scene from Karma, Book 1 in the Silke Butters Superhero Series

She didn’t even wait for the van to come to a full stop before she raced out the door. Her feet just glanced the pavement as she hopped over the curb and rushed in through the sliding glass doors.

Los Angeles Memorial bustled with activity. People loitered in the waiting area anxious for their turn to be called. Silke weaved between the lot of them and made her way to the reception desk.

Her voice was frantic as she asked for Maki’s room number. The receptionist tried to tell her to wait while she finished a phone call. She attempted to disregard the fact that Silke’s very best friend, who was more like a sister than Honey, was lying in a hospital bed clinging to life. She wanted Silke to wait her turn before going in to possibly see her friend for the very last time.

Silke was done waiting. She slammed her fists down on top of the desk, sending papers into the air. The impact also proceeded to pull sparks from her hands that ran over the receptionist desk directly into the phone. It sparked and popped in the nurse’s hand, forcing her to drop it and turn her attention to Silke.

It happened again. Some type of spark emitted from her own hands. She felt it before when facing off against Rostov. At that time, she felt powerful as she could drop the much larger assailant. Now she attacked a poor nurse just doing her job. What was happening?



Chris Barili: This is from the opening scene of Smothered:

The old Victorian didn’t just sit on the street. It didn’t hunch, stand, rest, or exist. Instead, it loomed, seeming to lean out over the front sidewalk to intimidate passersby. The porch’s white rail gleamed like a sadistic grin, slashing through the pallor of the gray shingle siding, while dark windows stared like half-lidded eyes, their smoke-stained shades still in the half-drawn position they’d been in the last time human life had occupied the house nearly a year before.

The houses around it sported fresh coats of paint, most in bright, almost garish colors popular when they were built over a century ago. All had lush, green lawns and flower boxes bursting with color, not drab gray-green weed forests with wilted, long-dead skeletons of flowers. The house also lacked the bright Memorial Day banners, flags, and window trimmings of its neighbors, making it the only unpatriotic house on the block.

Carol Riggs: This excerpt is from THE BODY INSTITUTE (p. 284 paperback).

All human sounds cut off as the door closes. Cool air clings to my skin like clammy hands. A whirring, sucking noise of machinery fills the room, which smells odd, a sort of musty grease scent mingled with antiseptic.

Glow sticks hang by the door. Leo grabs one, activates it with a crack, and aims it down an aisle. Rows and rows of coffin-shaped capsules occupy the room, stacked three high like drawers in a macabre-style dresser. They make up a maze of walls a little taller than my head.


Art Rosch: Below is a descriptive passage from THE GODS OF THE GIFT, my first mature science fiction novel.


The Gods of The Gift on Smashwords

 “Chapter Six

The View From Castle Strobe

            Strobe, the castle of Prince Vizmir Borgomak, was the size of a small city.  An irregular wall surrounded it, made from materials that showed its antiquity.  Old stone ramparts supported later materials of brick, concrete, rammed earth and plasticene.  There were many gates, old and new.  Some were operated by winches and slid upward on squeaking chains.  Others opened by remote control, slid smoothly into recesses.  The castle had not required military defense in thousands of years.  The old arrow slits and catapult ramps had been converted into modern verandas and scenic windows. 

            The castle had eighty seven towers, each topped with a distinctive dome or minaret. Some were shaped like simple onions, pointed at the top, round and tapering at the sides.  Others had two or three flattened ovoids pushed together and topped with sharp spires. Yet others were slab sided triangles with cat-walks latticed onto their steeples. The designs on these towers were made with paint, gilding, mosaic tiles and filigree.  Color schemes were numerous and bizarre.  One large tower near the castle’s center was the shape of a tulip bulb with a flattened top.  It was decorated with blue and white triangles, alternating side by side, one triangle upright, the other pointing downward, and the triangles changed size according to the placement on the tapering shape of the spire.  Another tower was spiraled in red stipples, like a confection.  Yet another was painted as a tree against the sky, twisting gnarled branches weaving their way up the sides of the facade against the cerulean backdrop.

            There was no sense of unity to the structure.  It seemed as though the parts had been pushed together from a book of tourist architecture, showpiece images gleaned from cultures all across the galaxy.  Walls ran from one tower to another, and there were so many that the walls collided, forming useless closed yards, odd pens with little doors, dried up gardens that had been forgotten and walled off.  Some yards contained human skeletons or bones of animals and fallen birds. No two towers were the same height, or the same color.  Windows of synthglass shone in various elevations, many adorned with balconies.  Force fields protected these balconies from the intense heat of this hemisphere of the planet, which was also called Strobe.  On this hot afternoon, flags like the tongues of  snakes hung listlessly, without a breeze to sniff. At the base of the megalith, shops huddled against the castle walls, wares of many kinds were sold and traded.  Spices and electronic devices rested in adjacent stalls where their proprietors sat on stools and smoked from water pipes.  Half a mile beyond the perimeter of the castle, agriculture on an industrial scale was being practiced.  Vast fields of tall, slender plants drank from the arms of rotating sprinklers.  The plantations surrounded Castle Strobe, vanishing to the horizon in neatly planted circles.  The plants were blooming.  Each purple stalk held three or four gaudy flowers of mauve, chartreuse and orange.  The odor of a billion flowers, sweet and cloying like toffee, penetrated the skin and clothing of thousands of robiot workers, whose nervous systems were impervious to the effect of the plant.  This potent botanical was called Somniferum Cannabino Papaverum Vizmeria.  Its name in ordinary vernacular was Futufu.  It had many other names.”

This vision of the castle was inspired by the sight of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square.  The cathedral is such a bizarre and colorful structure that it casts a spell over me.  In the novel, Castle Strobe is the home of a demented drug lord.  It reflects his chaotic character, his undisciplined extravagance.  This is but one of many settings that I devised in THE GODS OF THE GIFT.  I had absolute freedom to practice world building in “Gods” because there was no realistic counterpart to our own world.  I could create anything. In my latest, yet unpublished book, The Shadow Storm, I’ve had to constrain myself with a far more familiar setting  Here I had to draw a map of the planet Freeth before I began anything else.  The setting of Shadow Storm resembles our own world on the eve of World War One.  I was stimulated to write the book by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.  I applied a maxim, that is, “Geography Is Destiny” to create a setting that was completely different from our home planet yet reminiscent of it in almost every way.  Thus the work on the map was of primary importance.  I had to foresee battles that would have global consequences.  I had to think like a military master-mind and work out the ways in which armies would be thwarted by towering mountain ranges and navies would be directed towards the control of strategic waterways.

Mountain Retreat

In many genres, especially fantasy or science fiction, stories take us into fictional worlds which spring from the depths of our imaginations, which serve as the settings for our stories. In film, there is the luxury of visual images and through sometimes elaborate sets, and in more modern times digital imaging, we are able to bring a world to life for viewers. But in fiction, we must use our words to draw those pictures mentally for our readers through action and character. It is a different medium, but it is no less challenging to create a world through the written word.

Would you like to share some thoughts on world building?

Art Rosch: World building is intriguing because it challenges me to devise new religions, new societies, new terrain and all of these factors feed into the nature and behavior of my characters.  They are people of their time and place, and this time, this place, has only a peripheral relation to our own world and the people and events that have transpired here.  The Shadow Storm is about preparing for a global war, one that will sweep the book’s characters into violent and unusual events.  I have the warm gut feeling that I’ve written a fine book.  I hope I’ll be stimulated to continue its sequel and prequel.  That depends on whether I can find readers.  Ain’t that a bitch?  Our literary landscape is so bloated with writers and their books that it’s hard to get traction.

Every day I get emails from marketing gurus promising to show me how to do book releases that will get 100+ reviews on the day of release and earn me a seven figure income.  I think, perhaps, that the marketing gurus may be earning seven figure incomes from gullible writers, but the rest of us are confined by our own economic state.  Unless we too have seven figure incomes we won’t be able to invest in enough marketing to earn seven figure income from our books.  Is this Catch-23?

Sensory detail are a favorite for revealing setting amoung our panel members. How ever you chose to reveal setting, be sure you’ve done the needed research, whether that means traveling to the physical location or researching remotely, to be able to form a clear and accurate mental picture for your readers. Remember when dealing with real locations, that there will be readers out there who are familiar with the locations and they may be quick to point out any inconsistencies.

I think our panelists have given up some food for thought when it comes to setting and workd building. Be sure to catch next week’s installment, when Ask the Authors will talk about publishing. If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.

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“Strange Attractors”: a strange attractor in its own right

Strange Attractors

I’m not sure how to classify Strange Attractors by Mark Todd. It is science fiction, but it doesn’t feel like science fiction. It feels like a story with well-developed characters you want to care about and an intricate plot, filled with irony, which keeps you guessing until the very last pages. Most of all, I think Strange Attractors is simply an interesting and entertaining read, a good, old fashioned, well crafted story that keeps the pages turning.

Conti is Morgan’s boss, but when she learns that the project she’s been working on has the potential to wipe out world populations, and has potential military applications, she wonders if her boss is losing his mind. And perhaps he is. Conti has seen little gray men near Roswell, but they aren’t what he thinks. Morgan is seeing one too, in the form of a little boy who looks strangely like her little brother. Although he shows her many things, including a strange craft, Morgan doesn’t believe in aliens, so she gives these things a different interpretation. When Morgan confronts her boss about her suspicions on the project, he seems to give her the brush off, and before all is through, Morgan doesn’t know who to trust. She’s sure the little boy who appears both in and out of her dreams is trying to tell her something, and it could be something that could change the fate of the world, but can she figure out his message while there is still time to avert disaster?

I enjoyed every page of this story. I was drawn to it as if to a strange attractor, something attractive and compelling. I give Strange Attractors five quills.

Five Quills3

Ask the Authors: Action/Dialog

Writer Frustration

When tackling dialog, we want it to sound as  real as possible, but if you capture every “um” and “ah”, the conversation may put readers to sleep, or even worse, they may just set the book down and never get back to it, because the fact is that everyday conversation is pretty boring. In writing, every word, every phrase, every scene should serve a purpose to the story. There’s no room for what screenwriters call “Hello. How are you? I’m fine.” dialog. In real life, these are things that we talk about, but readers don’t need to be privy to those kinds of conversation. Dialog should serve a purpose such as revealing needed information or character traits, but it also should help to move the story forward, just as much as the action does. It also should read smooth and sound realistic, making your characters more realistic for your readers. The question is, how do we go about doing all of that. Let’s ask our panel members if they have any tips they’d like to share.

Is it difficult to produce dialog that is natural and realistic?
DeAnna Knippling: If you think really, really hard about it and remove every possible flaw…you’ll end up with craptastic dialogue.  I maintain that good dialogue is about listening to how other people talk.
Jordan Elizabeth:  I’ve always been told that my dialogue sounds realistic.  I don’t try; I just write what I hear in my head.  Sorry if that sounds conceited!
Carol Riggs: Sometimes. I find I have to pare down my vocabulary so I don’t sound like my characters are reading from a dictionary. Again, reading the lines aloud help me catch those things and make the interchange flow better.

Tim Baker: I don’t find it difficult. I try to make my characters speak as if they were real people – the way you and I speak. If you have a guy sitting down at a bar the dialogue should be realistic…

“What can I get you?”

“Heineken. Thanks.”

As opposed to…

“What would you like to drink?”

“I would like a bottle of Heineken, please.”

What are your secrets for writing dialog that doesn’t sound forced?

DeAnna Knippling: A playwriting teacher made me go out to a coffee shop and write down every word of dialog that I heard for at least half an hour.  I haven’t been the same since.  I “hear” a voice saying things as I type, and I can “see” text as people talk.  “How would I tape out that grunt?”  “How would I punctuate that pause?”
Jordan Elizabeth:  I see the scene playing out in my mind and I hear what the characters are saying.  I also have a certain critique partner who is awesome at pointing out stilted sentences.
Carol Riggs: Reading it aloud! I also paste chapters into Natural Reader and let it read to me. Awkward stuff pops out pretty easily that way, if it doesn’t sound natural.
Chris Barili: Listen to real people talk, then apply the filter of your character’s personality, and you should have realistic dialogue. Unless you’re writing speculative fiction set in another time/place, of course.
Cynthia Vespia: Listen to the way people talk in real life. There are subtle nuances to every person, whether they have an accent or not. But when you write the dialogue, don’t try to be fancy.
Margareth Stewart: Very much – so very much. I have enrolled myself into screenwriting courses and also plays, so I can really master them. Besides that, I´ve also got some second-hand books with some masters of playwriting, you know from Shakespeare to Molière. So I guess by now, I´m on the way to crafting really good talking (lol). Let´s see!
Art Rosch: Once I had a dream in which a voice said, “Max wouldn’t say that.  It’s not in his nature.” So, I was getting dialogue guidance from the Dream Coach.  Dialogue must emerge from a variety of factors, and by the time I’ve got characters speaking their lines, what they say is almost pre-ordained.  I believe that words are objects, that they contain illimitable power and energy.  What people speak influences the world around them.  The dialogue between and amongst my fictional characters always serves a purpose.  Does it further the plot?  If it doesn’t it’s useless.  Is it stimulating, original, powerful?  If my characters are stimulating, their words ought to be. Dialogue emerges naturally from circumstances.  It’s organic.  The conversations that people have in fiction can be more interesting than what passes ordinarily in daily life.  They only sound forced if they don’t hew to the character’s true nature and the needs of the situation.
Dialog tags. Some authors, especially those in academia, will tell you that good writing only uses said, and maybe asked, or replied, while other authors prefer a more varied reportoir. Some say use them, others say use them as little as possible. Is there a right way when it comes to dialog tags? Let’s see what our panel members think.
Do you use dialog tags? Do you stick with the basics, or use varied tags?
DeAnna Knipling: By dialogue tags, you mean he said, right?  Of course I use them.  Why would I want my reader to be confused?  I only mix them up if it’s something satirical,” she pontificated.
Jordan Elizabeth: I tend to use varied tags, but I’m trying hard to use “said” more.  Most of the time I just use action tags.
Carol Riggs: Yes, I use tags, but usually the basics (she said, she asked). I do throw in a few mutters, whispers, and shouts; but I TRY not to overdo those. I’ve heard it said the best tags should pretty much be invisible, so the reader doesn’t even notice them anymore after awhile. I omit tags if it’s clear who’s talking, however. Not everything needs to be tagged!

Tim Baker: By tags I assume you mean attributions. I use them but I use them as sparingly as possible, and I rarely embellish them. 90% of the time I’ll use “John said.” And nothing more. Sometimes I’ll throw in a “John replied.” To prevent overuse of the word said. Then on very rare occasion I’ll use “John replied sarcastically.”

I do this rarely because I feel if the reader hasn’t learned enough about John, and isn’t “in the scene” enough to figure out that John is being sarcastic – then I’m not doing my job.

Chris Barili: As few as possible. I much prefer to use actions in place of tags to keep the reader clear on who’s talking.

For example, I could say: “Your zipper is down,” Toni said, giggling and covering her mouth with one hand. “The cow is escaping the barn!”

But I think this is much better: Toni giggled and her hand flew to her mouth. “Your zipper is down, and the cow is escaping the barn!”

Here’s a clip from Hell’s Marshal, Book one of my Hell’s Butcher series. Frank Butcher–dead and in Hell–has been told by the three judges of the underworld that he is now their marshal, charged with bringing back souls that escape eternal damnation. And his first target is Jesse James. Frank is asking the judges how to get James’ soul back to Hell.

“All right, so exorcism is out. How else?”

“You must kill the body, then use talismans we give you to send the spirit to the underworld. If you fail to send it across, it will simply possess another body.”

Bill Hickok spoke alone. “He may use people from the world of the living to do his dirty work. They’ll be his puppets as long as he needs them. Harm as few as
possible to keep things quiet.”

Frank stood, fists at his sides, taking slow, deep breaths. He hated being backed into a corner, but they’d done it nonetheless. He locked eyes with Webber.

“Why me? Out of all the souls you got down here, why pick me?”

Webber never looked away, the corners of his mouth turning up and his eyes smoldering.

“We have a history, you and me.”

So, it was personal. Frank could understand that, at least.

“One condition. If I do this, you increase my time in the pit so it’s what I deserve.”

The judges conferred, hissing.

“Agreed,” they said as one.

Frank nodded. “If I’m gonna be Hell’s Marshal, shouldn’t I get a badge?”

Webber grinned and a bolt of lightning shot down from the ceiling, crashing into Frank’s chest. His body went rigid, and a searing agony blazed on his chest. Fire
arced through his body, making his muscles contract until he felt his bones straining not to snap. He tried to scream, but couldn’t open his mouth even an inch. The acrid stink of burning flesh filled his nostrils as the skin on his chest sizzled and cooked like bacon over a fire.

An instant later, the lightning disappeared and Frank collapsed to the floor. When he finally mustered the strength to lift his head, a marshal’s badge had been
burned in swollen, pink flesh where the lightning had touched him. In the center of the six-pointed star, a skull stared out, flames dancing in the hollows of its eyes. The words “Hell’s Marshal” circled it all. The judges faded from sight, snickering as they disappeared.

“Send Jesse James back to us, Marshal Butcher,” echoed their voices. “Dead or dead.”


Notice there are only two traditional dialogue tags in all that, but action is sprinkled throughout, adding flavor and helping the reader follow the “palaver,” as Frank would call it.

Art Rosch: Dialog tags can be useful.  I’ve heard advice from prominent writers to never go beyond “He said/She said”.  But I like a little variation.  “What did she want?” quavered Tina.”  Something like that, the use of a descriptive word in a tag, sometimes changing an adjective into a verb…..that works for me.  “Where did he go?” Alice asked haltingly. “What happened to Dizzy?”she screached.



This quote found on “It’s All About the Words” by P.J. Braley



Emotion motivates characters’ actions and may come through in dialog. But just as real people in real life, characters don’t always say what they mean, and they don’t always mean what they say. So, how do readers know that although your character says one thing, she means another? Maybe the character rolls her eyes, or averts her gaze, or perhaps she says it with a sarcastic tone. In screenwriting, you put these things into the stage directions and the actors carry them out. In fiction, this type of thing must be apparent on the page. Let’s see how our panel members tackle this one.

What methods do you use to clue readers into subtext?

 DeAnna Knippling: My understanding of how subtext works is that it’s the gap between what is done and what is said.  In a play or movie script, subtext is developed by the actors, who literally act out physical cues in order to clue the audience in on what’s going on with longing glances, angry tones of voice, etc.  In fiction, you do the same thing, only through the descriptions of the characters and their actions.  As a reader or audience, you don’t always need to know exactly what the subtext of a scene is, but you do need a clue that all is not what it seems.  A lot of classic mysteries that use the noir tradition–for example, The Maltese Falcon–use subtext to tell the reader to pay attention to something in a scene, but not exactly what.  Solving the mystery of the subtext is part of the fun.
Art Rosch: It’s usually a character’s body language.  Is anyone familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Ekman?  He invented the concept of micro-expressions.  Subtle facial tells that reveal how truthful a person is being.  If you can work with a character’s body language and facial tells, a lot of subtext will emerge.
Any pet peeves with dialog?

DeAnna Knippling: When it’s “on the nose.”  In real life, do you talk about what your id wants on a running basis?  No!  Then don’t blurt out your deepest desires on a running basis in the freaking dialogue!

Jordan Elizabeth: No pet peeve, but I can safely say that I love using dialogue to break up the tension in an intense scene.

Carol Riggs: Saying fluff greetings and lengthy good-byes, as well as repeating things to other characters that the reader already knows. Especially the latter is a smart place to “tell” or summarize so the readers can skip to the parts they don’t know yet. Another pet peeve is information and background dumping in dialogue. You can reveal things in conversation, but it’s not the place to explain your worldbuilding and character’s personal history. I try (with various levels of success) to avoid these things.

Tim Baker: My biggest pet peave when it comes to dialogue is the writer who treats dialogue like narrative. Your narrative should be grammatically correct, but speech is not like that. When we talk, we use all sorts of lexiconic (I think I just invented that word!) tricks to get our point across – including body language. As I said earlier, I try to make my character’s speech as real and natural as possible.

Cynthia Vespia: I’ve read some very popular writers that used “he said” or “she said” after every line of dialogue. It’s unnecessary in my opinion.

Art Rosch: My only pet peeves are triteness and dialog that fails to emerge from the character’s personality in an organic fashion.  That will sound both forced and boring.


03-21_Margaret_Mahy Quote

This quote from “It’s All About the Words” by P.J. Braley


Action carries the story forward, keeping things moving, so to speak. Every scene is a combination of action and dialog, with maybe a little bit of exposition where necessary to offer setting and set the tone. It’s a tightrope we must walk, always struggling to find our balance between elements. Unneeded dialog can bore readers, while too much non-stop action too fast can wear readers out. Let’s see how our panel members handle action.

What is your secret to finding the right balance between action and dialog?
DeAnna Knippling: There isn’t one.  What, you’re going to regulate it as 50/50?  What if no one’s talking?!?  The “right balance between action and dialogue” is really a question of beat and scene structure, and there are 1001 ways to handle it.  Beyond the scope of this answer 🙂
Jordan Elizabeth: As I watch the scene play out in my head, I write down what I’m seeing and hearing.  It tends to form a smooth scene.
Carol Riggs: I sort of have an internal “feel” for it. If I start getting bored and antsy with one or the other, I know I need to change it up! The reader would be sensing the same thing, I’m thinking. I like a good balance of both, back and forth in a natural flow.
Tim Baker: In my opinion, dialogue is action – just not “car chase” type action. Whenever characters are speaking, the scene is moving much faster than if the author decides to use prose to describe the scene. So I try to use dialogue as much as possible to set scenes and let the reader know what’s happening.
Cynthia Vespia: I don’t try too hard to make a balance. Just let the story flow naturally, without forcing it, and it will find its own way. Having action in between dialog is helpful to build the scene so it isn’t just floating heads talking. Give a sense of movement and use it to build emotion.
Art Rosch: I’ve never really thought about it. I don’t have a secret.  If I did, I wouldn’t tell anyone.
What is your secret for making action scenes move smooth?
DeAnna Knippling:
Jordan Elizabeth: I watch the scene playing out and describe what I see in my mind. Critique partners also help to make sure my writing is coherent.
Carol Riggs: Short, punchy sentences. Active verbs. Fewer adjectives so readers don’t get bogged down. The character also tends to act more and think less.
Tim Baker: When I write a scene with lots of fast-moving action the key thing I try to do is keep the reader moving with it. By this I mean I don’t force them to read unrelated text (overly descriptive narrative). If a car is about to be hit by a train there is no need to go into detail about the car or the train. That should be handled (if necessary) before the action sequence is written.
Chris Barili: To me, an “action” scene is something like a fight or a car chase, etc. And for me, choreography is key. I have to know my setting, know my characters, and know what the end result can be. One technique I’ve heard of is writing the action scene backward from where you want it to end, which I may try sometime, but it doesn’t seem to lend itself to the creative flow taking over.
Cynthia Vespia: Action scenes need a certain energy to them that allows the reader to feel the pace of it. If it calls for a fight I act them out either with my own body movements, or using action figures. It is similar to the way choreographers block out action scenes in movies. You want the action to flow naturally. Knowing how the anatomy works, using the environment, and setting the proper pacing are all important elements.

Art Rosch: Action scenes are the movements of bodies through a matrix of space and time.  They may be people, ships, cars, horses, whatever…they have momentum and intensity. The movement is forceful, violent and partakes of the character’s attributes.  If I have characters engage in a fight, they will fight differently because they have different moral and physical parameters.  I’ve been a great fan of Samurai films and I’ve derived a lot of my sword action in “The Gods Of The Gift” from watching actor/martial artists like Toshiro Mifune.  Japanese Kendo (sword work) has a severe grace. The ideal outcome of a duel between individuals is death by a single stroke.  The victor defeats the vanquished by drawing his sword from its scabbard.  In one fluid movement the sword is drawn the strike is made and the enemy’s blood gushes from his body as he falls to the ground.  Zip!Sweesh!  Done.  Of course, this isn’t always ideal for film or fiction.  It’s too quick.  There needs to be stroke and counterstroke.  Tactical gains and losses.  In American action film, the car chase is almost obligatory.  That’s film.  Writing a car chase?  Boring, unless the writer can draw the reader into the sensory details of the scene.  Wind blows, shocks scream, cars bounce and careen.  Then there’s gun fights.  Why do the bad guys always miss?  Why do they fire eight hundred rounds from their automatic weapons and never hit any of the good guys?

I once tried a challenge to write a story using only dialog, but without subtext of facial expressions and body language, it was difficult to follow what was happening, and without actions, the characters never did anything but talk. It was really pretty boring. Action and dialog are both used to move the story forward. They are the bread and butter of the writing, because without them, the story goes nowhere.


03-12_CarlHiaasen Quote

This quote from It’s All About Words, by P.J. Braley

Would you like to share a brief excerpt from one of your best dialog scenes?


DeAnna Knippling: I have no idea what my “best” dialogue scenes are.  This one’s from a forthcoming book, Thousandeyes.  A detective, the mentor of the main character, is questioning a person of interest in a murder case that may or may not be tied to a local serial killer.  I enjoyed writing this bit because I finally felt like I was enough in control of the dialogue to layer in a number of lies and clues, even in just this short little bit:

“What did you smell that day in the apartment, Ms. Murphy?  Before the deceased arrived?”


“Mr. Demars had not yet brought sealed paint containers into your apartment.  Why do you say that you smelled paint?”

The woman had closed her eyes.

“It was on the dropcloths.  He had left them in a stack in the living room.”

“Did you touch anything that he had brought with him?”

“No, I was fussing around with a few last things.  I didn’t want him to get paint on everything.”

“Were you afraid that he would do so?”



“What has this got to do with the murder?”

“Just answer the question.”



Janet Garber: From Dream Job:


At last, after a choked-down lunch and a brief afternoon walk, Melie had an administrator to deal with.

“You know what, Deedee, just send her home.” Melie dabbed at her face with a tissue, wondering why the heat was turned up so high.

“I can do that?”

“Yes, she’s violating the dress code. You’re the Surgery Department Administrator. You told her to wear a lab coat.”

Will this day never end?

“Yeah, she’s a floozy with those cheeky little breasts of hers always peeking out of her necklines and those miniskirts . . .”

I have to concentrate, Melie told herself, noting that DeeDee had no figure of her own to speak of.

“Dee, wait—is it true you told the rest of the staff she had been on welfare?”

“Oh, everybody knows that,” Deedee said calmly, sitting back in her chair, holding out one hand, admiring her new manicure.

“They do now. And about her mother’s affair with the caseworker?”

Dee’s head snapped around. “What about it?”

“Wasn’t that told to you in confidence?”

“Look, Melie, I take these girls in off the street and give them careers in healthcare. If they’re smart and they listen to me. But they’re a bunch of tramps.”

“Dee—oh, never mind. Maybe next time you should look to hire someone a bit more mature?”

“Older? Nah! I like ’em young so I can mold them right.”


Tim Baker: Here is a scene from my novel Blood in the Water – It’s the first scene that came to mind, and I think it is a good example of how I use dialogue…


“Some clown with a metal detector found our body?”

Steve Salem shot a sideways look at his partner, who was shaking her head in disgusted disappointment while sucking the final drops of a pineapple-banana smoothie from a tall Styrofoam cup. She flipped the cup into the rear cargo area of the Jeep and returned Steve’s stare.

“What? Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?” Steve asked.

Val flitted her hand at him. “Like…that. Like you’re not thinking the same thing. In case you haven’t noticed, clients haven’t exactly been beating down the door. How have you survived this long?”

Val reached up and twisted the rear-view mirror toward herself and checked her long blonde curls, ignoring Steve’s glare. When she finished, Steve adjusted the mirror and returned his focus to the road. After a moment of silence, he shook his head.

“First of all, it wasn’t our body. His name was Patrick Donahue. We were hired to find him. Hopefully, alive.”

“Right,” Val interrupted. “And now some wannabe gold-digger, looking for the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, found him and we probably won’t get paid.”

Steve sighed. “Okay, second of all, the Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a fictional treasure located in Mexico, about as far away from Flagler Beach and the Atlantic Ocean as you can get. And finally, you’re looking at it wrong.”

“Wrong? I’m looking at it wrong?” She crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows toward him. “Please enlighten me.”

“Joyce Donahue hired us to find her missing husband and gave us a two-thousand-dollar retainer.”

Val turned her brown doe-eyes onto him without a reaction. “A non-refundable retainer,” Steve said.


Steve nodded.

“You’re kidding. Right?”

“I don’t kid about money.”

“You can’t keep her money. We didn’t find her husband.”

“Now you want to refund her money? A minute ago you were complaining about not getting paid. Make up your mind.”

“I haven’t changed my mind. I still want to get paid…”

“Well, then…”

She held up a hand to interrupt him. “…but I want to earn my pay.”

Steve finished his smoothie and sent the cup to the rear to join Val’s. “Allow me to explain. We were hired ten days ago. We began an investigation, using man-hours and resources. The fact that we didn’t solve the case doesn’t change those things. That’s what a retainer is for. To cover our operating expenses.”

Val shook her head. “No. That’s bullshit. You make us sound like lawyers.” 


Cynthia Vespia: Here is scene from my novel Karma: Silke Butters Superhero Series Book 1


“This is insane, you know that?” she said, inadvertently pacing the floor. “Just a few days ago, I was living a normal life and now I’m being chased by supercharged mercenaries and blasting energy bolts out of my hands.”

Joe shifted up in his bed. She could tell every part of him ached to get out of it. Joe was never the type to slow down and rest. Now she knew why… he was enhanced, he didn’t need to rest.

“I’m sorry, Silke,” he said. “I tried to keep all of this from you. That’s why I didn’t want you wrapped up in the affairs of the Enforcer Factory. But you’re fooling yourself if you think the life you were living was normal.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean from the outset, there was something special about you,” he told her. “And I’m not just talking about your abilities, I’m talking about your drive. There was no way Silke Butters would wind up in some average nine-to-five job pushing paper in some cubicle. You had big dreams and you went to New York and accomplished them. That’s not normal what you do, it’s extraordinary.”


Art Rosch: I like this example of dialog between a therapist and Sarah Kantro, who is in a mental hospital and in desperate panic and depression.



          Sarah sits rigidly in the anteroom outside Serena Steinberg’s office.  Ellsworth’s voice attempts to soothe her with meaningless but necessary reassurances. 

          “It’ll be okay, honey, don’t worry, you’ll be all right.”

          Sarah’s body is hunched forward like a bow, as if a string is running from her forehead to her knees.  Breath comes through her nose in quick little snorts.  She is aware of Ellsworth’s sounds, grateful for them at a subliminal level. 

          Finally, the inner office door opens.  Sarah is not looking up, but hears her name being called.


          “Yes,” she raises her eyes.  At first glance, Serena Steinberg’s appearance conjures two words, two arrogant, presumptive and annihilating words: Fat Woman. 

          She must weigh at least two hundred, two twenty, Sarah thinks, as her eyes do the lightning-fast evaluation of a food-compulsive woman meeting another woman.  It gives her an immediate internal sense of leverage, of comfort.  The therapist isn’t huge, she isn’t waddling and jiggling.  Rather, she is rounded and soft.  She has a young pretty face with a bit of neck wattle and a pair of breasts that make her look like an ancient mother-goddess dug up from an archeological site.

          Then Sarah meets the therapist’s eyes and does not see what she expects to see in a Fat Woman.   She does not see shame, discomfort, apology, and victimization.  She sees an easy and compassionate smile.  She sees security. 

          “Come on in,” Serena Steinberg says, extending a hand towards her office.

          As if a magnet is pulling her, Sarah goes toward the door.  She looks back to Ellsworth and mouths the word “thanks”. 

          There is no desk in the office.  There is a couch, to the right of the door.  Flanking a large window that looks out over the park are two well-upholstered grandma chairs.  The therapist gestures to one of them and takes her place in the other, gazing at Sarah with obvious concern. 

          “I can see you’re having a really hard time.  Can you tell me about it?”

          As if the bow string that keeps her body in correct equilibrium has just snapped, Sarah hunches forward and puts her face to her knees and begins weeping convulsively.

          “I can’t tell where I end and my mother begins,” she howls between sobs.  “Or where my mother ends and I begin, or whose thoughts I’m thinking, if they’re my own or if I’m just hearing an endless tape recording of things I heard in my childhood.”

          She wraps her hands around her chest as if she is cold, and coughs hoarsely.

          “All right, all right,” Serena Steinberg encourages.  Sarah looks up into the face of the therapist.  She sees an emotion that startles her.  She sees sadness.  She sees genuine compassion, a compassion made not of pity or superiority but of true equality.  Serena Steinberg has wrestled with her own devils and has found a way to make peace. 

          I can do that, too, Sarah thinks. 

          Taking an immense risk, she voices her thoughts.

          “I don’t want to offend you, but you’re a pretty big woman.”

          The therapist laughs, throwing her head back.  It is a good laugh, it peals with a crystalline tone, ding ding ding, as if three different sized fine goblets have been struck with a fingernail. 

          “My secret weapon,” she says, eyes gleaming.  “The world is full of different shapes and sizes and tastes, and being ‘big’, as you put it, is something I was born with. Are you suggesting that I can’t help you because I’m fat?”

          Sarah puts up her hands.  “No no no no, just the opposite.  I think you may be able to help me because you are, uh, excuse me, ‘fat’.”

          “Well,” the therapist says with satisfaction, “we’ve got the word ‘fat’ out in the open already, don’t we?  See what I mean about my secret weapon?”

          “Fat,” Sarah reiterates.  “Fat fat fat.  Fat fat.”  She smiles, for the first time in weeks.  “Fat fat fat.”

          Serena joins the recitation and both women are saying “Fat fat fat, fat fat fat,”

and it acquires a rhythm, like they are a doo-wop band singing nonsense syllables. “Fat fat fat, fat fat fat.”

          The women begin to giggle, and then to laugh until they are holding their sides.

          The word “Fat” has been utterly drained of its destructive power.

          Sarah feels a lot better than she has five minutes ago. 

Find Me.  Read Me. Heal Me at


Margareth Stewart: Excerpt from Open/Pierre´s journey after war by Margareth Stewart available at 

He started walking around. People, always wary of strangers, didn’t approach him. He kept looking, trying to find something which could spark his attention. The sun was striking hot and, even with his hat on, he could barely see through the glare. Women carried umbrellas, with some balancing all sorts of things upon their heads, many with babies tied to their backs, too. He was so out of tune. Then he saw a wooden house with a blue sign above the door – Book Shop. “Book shop?” He stopped at the entrance. An Open sign hung on the door. He entered.

An old man stood up from a wooden carved counter and spoke in beautiful, polite English.

“Good morning, how can I help you, Sir?”


It took longer than expected for Pierre to say anything. He didn’t know what to say, if he was looking for a book or a job. The room was piled up with books.

“I´m looking for a job. I am at your service, for any payment.”

The man studied him. “Hum.”

“I´ve worked before.”

“I see.”

“I´m good with books.”

“What makes you think so?”

Pierre didn’t know how to answer that. The question wasn’t expected. Another, smarter person to cross his way. His only option was to be truthful.

“I´m looking for a job until the train returns to service. I´m on a journey to India.”

He thought about saying that he was fluent in more than five languages, or that he was a good organizer and could apply one of his many skills to sorting out the books there, or he could simply state that he had no other means to surviving. But he thought it better not to complicate things even more.

“Because I like books.”

He shrugged, unable to think now of anything more to say.

“Have you sold any books before? That´s quite a different thing.”

“A hard job, I know, but I’m reliable, and honest.”

“Have you ever sold books like this? Second-hand books?” He swept his arm, his hand open, across the book-laden table.

Pierre looked around piles and pile of books on the floor, shelves, a table and desk. What is this guy doing there? Who does he sell books to in the middle of nowhere? He knew if he asked such questions, the job would never come to him.

“Well, I´ve done a lot of things, from working on farms, to restaurants and tents, why should I not be able for this?” Each word needed to be carefully chosen. It felt like a chess game.

“Good point. Experience is a positive attribute. But books are not easy to sell. People are unwilling to pay for them, thinking they can get stories for free.”


I want to thank all of the panel members who shared their work here. These are some great examples of both dialog and action, and how they work together to move readers through the scene and progress the story forward. I can’t wait until next Monday, when we’ll talk about setting. I do hope you’ll all join us.

If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.

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“Blood in the Water”: A Crazy Crime Novel

Blood cover

Author Tim Baker has done it again and Flagler Beach is the setting for another crazy crime caper, Blood in the Water. Ike helps a friend with a seach for sunken treasure that leads to a thirty year old cold case, which strangely enough is tied to a murder investigation his girlfriend, Val, has undertaken. Can they bring done the killer and solve the cold case before he learns they are on his trail and puts a stop to their plans? No spoilers here. You’ll have to read the book to find out.

As usual, Tim Baker has turned out a fun and extremely entertaining read. Readers will root for the good guys and boo whenever the villian appears. Hidden identities, missing persons, sunken treasure and lots of danger. This book has it all.

I give Blood in the Water five quills.

Five Quills3

Ask the Authors: Character Development


Let’s talk about developing characters. What makes them tick? What motivates them? Are they based on real people or achetypes or created from the gray matter in the writer’s head? What are they afraid of? And how do we as authors know these things? And how do we give our characters depth? Readers need to walk away from the story feeling as if the characters are whole, complex human beings, complete with personality and history. Let’s Ask the Authors about their methods for creating character, and feel free to share what works for you in the comments if you’re so inclined.

There are many methods we can use to create rich, in-depth characters, with backgrounds and histories, and belief systems ingrained from childhood. Some authors people watch and build from their observations. Others use the Proust Questionaire or similar tools to develop charaters and give them depth. A popular practice these days for bloggers to promote new releases is to interview the protagonist of the book instead of the author. I’ve never employed this practice here on Writing to be Read, but I have entertained the idea thinking it might be fun. 

What methods do you use to develop your characters?

DeAnna Knippling: I copy real people, or amalgamate real people, into a single character.  I’m trying to strip them down to one identifying “verb.”  My favorite example of a character who’s been simplified into delightfulness is Ash Williams from the Evil Dead franchise…his “verb” is “DO THE WORST POSSIBLE THING, BABY.”  Another good one is Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose “verb” might be something like, “do the thing that makes the situation not funny anymore.”  Like I said, still working on that.

Jordan Elizabeth: I’m not sure how to answer this one.  I write the first draft as the characters guide me.  Usually advanced character development happens in the editing phase.

Chris DiBella: I try to make my good guys likeable and I try to make my bad guys complete jerks. All my books have the same cast of main characters (good guys), so I want the reader to enjoy them enough to want to keep coming back for the next thirty novels I put out. I try to make them bad-asses, but also believable with how I project their characters. I also try to inject a lot of humor in my dialogue so that they appear like normal everyday folks. On the flip side, I want people to hate my antagonist so much that they actually scream out in cheer when Mercer kills them. I even get excited when I think about how I want to write their demise. It’s all just a fun part of the process.

Chris Barili: I start with a basic character triangle. What the character wants, what she needs, and her fears/faults. For shorter works, that’s all I do. For novellas or novels I’ll do a biography sheet on each major character.  That bio is four pages long when blank, and can be as long as 15 filled out. It has everything from their looks (which I often fashion after famous people) to their inner workings.

Tim Baker: My one and only method of character development is the story itself. At the beginning of the story each character (with the exception of recurring characters like Ike and Brewski) are strangers to me. I might know their basic personality but I learn about them as I write because I use their interactions with other characters, as well as their role in the story to bring out their individual personalities.

Cynthia Vespia: No matter the genre I build my characters with realistic qualities so they are more relatable to the readers.

Art Rosch: If a writer is not a psychologist (I mean one who studies human nature and matters of heart and mind, not a certified this-or-that) I’m likely to put down the book or story by said writer.  Psychology is fundamental to writing.  Where to start?  With yourself, of course.  You, in your mind/body system, are a living laboratory of human nature.  Extend your field of observation to your family, your friends, and then keep going.  We are more the same than we are different.  I’ve been helped immensely by reading psychology books.  I’m a Jungian and a great fan of James Hillman.  Jung gives us the archetypes.  We write in archetypes and flesh out our characters with individual quirks and traits.

It’s not only the protagonists that needs to be developed into a deep, rich character, but also our supporting characters. Like real people, experiences affect how the character relates to the world around them and to the other characters in the story. Characters have to have relationships and the backgrounds and histories of the minor characters plays into how these relationships function within the story. The nature of a relationship may also affect the protagonist’s actions and it need to be clear to readers why this releationship has such an effect.

Although characters with minor roles my not need to be developed as deeply as your main players, and their roles may be so minute that there’s not room to share their background with readers, we as the authors should at least have a vague idea of where each character is coming from. Backgrounds should be more detailed for the more major characters, with more of where they each are coming from being exposed to viewers.

Different methods of doing this may be dependent on the point of view(s) with which the author choses to tell the story. A Point of View (POV) offers the reader a window into a story which allows them to see a certain angle or perspective. When using a single POV, one of the drawbacks is that it is limiting, in that the reader will only know what the protagonist knows or experiences, and nothing more, which can make it difficult if you need to let readers know what the antagonist is up to. Multiple POVs, on the other hand, remedy that particular problem, but you risk getting the reader confused if you don’t make it clear who’s head we are in at all times. Let’s see if one is more popular than the other among our author panel members.

Do you prefer single or multiple POVs?

DeAnna Knippling: Depends on the story.  I do both.
Jordan Elizabeth: I love multiple POVs.  I get excited being able to explore different minds.
Carol Riggs: I much prefer single points of view. Limited ones, where the reader is locked into one character’s head throughout the novel, and no info is gained except from what that character learns. I love this setup because it’s exactly like our experiences in life—we only know our POV. It adds to a sense of mystery, with that not-knowing. I’ve thought about writing a multiple POV novel a couple of times, but I’ve actually never written one!
Chris Barili: Depends what I’m writing. Short stories are always single POV. Well, almost. I did sell one framed short story that had two POVs, and wrote another like that. Longer works, it depends. The stories in the Hell’s Butcher Series are one POV, either Frank’s for the larger books or someone else’s for t he shorter works. Smothered, my PNR novel (as B.T. Clearwater) has three points of view, one of which is a ghost. And the fantasy novel I sent to an editor this weekend has four POVs. It’s whatever works to advance the plot and make the story complete.
Tim Baker: I prefer multiple POVs. In my books I tend to write different parts of the story from the POV of one character or another. When I do – the reader only knows what that character knows. To me it’s more entertaining to learn the story at the same time the characters learn it.
Cynthia Vespia: As I’m developing a few new series I have found that multiple POV is alot more fun to write in, and it helps create a fuller world.
I think that, as our creations, our writings are a part of us. After all, everything we write has a little bit of ourselves in it. Whether we base your characters on real life people that we know, or invent them in our minds from the depths of our imaginations, they are bound to have traits in common with their creator. Let’s see what our author panel thinks.
Have you created any of your characters based on people who you know in real life?
DeAnna Knippling: All the time 🙂
Jordan Elizabeth:  Oma from Goat Children is the character most closely based on a real person.  She is my maternal grandmother personified.  (Goat Children is about a girl caring for her grandmother, who has dementia.  I based much of it off my real life experiences.)
Janet Garber: I take the 5th. Seriously, most characters are a blend or composite of people or I use some characteristic of their lives and take off from there.
I like to start with a person I know slightly or not at all  and make up a fantastic backstory. I did this with the wife of my husband’s work colleague – took a few details from her real life and embellished like crazy. I’ve been praying ever since that she won’t get her hands on this story! More recently after spending time with my 95 year old mother, I turned her into a character who decides to try online dating. At her age. And meets with success of a kind. I took care to describe a young relative in another story and made up a story of the rest of her life. Most often, I use elements of a living person as a starting point.
Carol Riggs: Sure! But not exactly like them. I just borrow a trait, whether a physical look or an attitude or so on. Like I see someone walking down the street with a certain gait, or I notice someone has allergies and is breathing through his mouth because his nose is stuffed up. Even something as simple as someone’s unusual name or my first high school crush’s name as a tribute to him. Real life is great fodder for spicing up my characters and making them more real.
Chris DiBella: I tend to use a lot of people I know in real life as references for my characters, and I even use the actual names of those people in the books. My two biggest examples of this are Pat Vigil and Tim Baker. Pat was my best friend in real life. He passed away unexpectedly a few years back and I was having a rough time dealing with losing him. At the time, I didn’t have a partner for my main character, so I just wrote Patrick in as that character. I decided to write him exactly how he was in real life. So every smart-mouthed reply or gesture he makes is how he would act if he was in those circumstances. It’s my way of honoring my friend and keeping him alive in the books. The parts about him always being the person I counted on for anything is also true, and even though he’s a snarky guy with a comeback for everything, he was the one friend I knew would come running no matter what I needed him for.
Chris Barili: Yes, both intentionally and unintentionally.
Art Rosch: Are you kidding?  Of course I have. See my answer on methods of development. I’ve portrayed my family and invented an extra sibling who is something of a composite with my sister’s qualities mixed with traits that are far more malignant.  It wasn’t difficult to turn my mother into a villain.  She was the kind of person who made everyone else miserable.  This is how I define evil: someone who escapes pain by transmitting it to other people.  My poor mom is gone now, so I can write about her with some objectivity.  What writer doesn’t use the human material, the people who populate his or her world?
Have you created characters from archetypes?
DeAnna Knippling: Meh.  I think archetypes are looking at character from a reader/critic’s point of view.  What makes an archetype an archetype and how do you write that?  Far more interesting.
Jordan Elizabeth: Not that I can think of.
Chris Barili: No, but after catching a class on that by Rebecca Moesta and Chris Mandeville at Superstars Writing Seminars, I plan to try it.
Tim Baker: I try to avoid this at all costs. I want my characters to ring true as real people. I don’t like clichés.
Art Rosch: Oh.  Again, see my answer on methods of development.  Looks like an archetype.  Feels like an archetype.  Smells like an archetype.  Has the texture of an archetype.  Good thing we didn’t step in it. (this is an old joke, one that I find very funny.  One of the other funniest things I’ve seen is the cartoon of two Indians (native Americans) walking in the desert.  A huge mushroom cloud is growing on the horizon.  One guy looks at the other and says: “It’s for you.”
It looks like archetypes aren’t very popular with these authors. Only Art Rosch admits to using archetypes in character development. In my studies I learned that archetypes are there, even when we don’t purposefully use them. I’ve found that some stories lend themselves to more obvious archetypes. While my Playground for the Gods series is science fantasy, encompassing world mythologies, it lends itself to the obvious use of archetypes. It is non stretch to see Enki as the trickster or to identify Inanna’s hero’s journey. While Delilah‘s hero’s journey may be a little less obvious, it is there, non-the-less. Every story has a hero and a villian, which are both archetypes, but it seems not all authors conciously set out to use them.

This quote found on “It’s All About the Words.

Anything we write which we have passion reflects that passion in the writing, the thoughts and opinions expressed coming from within ourselves. It’s inevitable, unless we’re writing ad copy or technical manuals. How can we expect to not inject at least a little of ourselves into our chacaters?
This post has me thinking about these things, and it occurred to me that Delilah is like my alter-ego. Delilah is tough and gritty and she she never fails to stand up for what she believes is right. She faces down outlaws and lynch mobs without showing the face of fear. She’s all the things I wish I was, but can’t be, at least not in polite society. Let’s see how our panel members see it. 
Do you have traits in common with any of your characters?
DeAnna Knippling: Sometimes.  More often it’s just that I empathize with them.  I have one character that I based on myself, for a series I don’t have out yet.  THAT was a weird writing experience, let me tell you.
Jordan Elizabeth: There is one character in a manuscript not yet published who I based strongly off of me.  Critique partners hated her!  They kept commenting on her flaws and they were things I do.  It was embarrassing! Since then I’ve tried to improve myself by being less like that character.
Janet Garber: 5th again!
Carol Riggs: There’s likely a little bit of me in every one of my characters. Although it’s awfully fun to write characters who are different from me in some way—more bolder, reckless, daring, and adventurous. They do things I wouldn’t have the personality or interest for. I can live vicariously through them. Even so, they still have basics that I value: a caring for others, a willingness to sacrifice for a greater cause, and a spirit that will get back up again and try again even after it’s been broken and stomped on.
Chris DiBella: I keep the answer to this question heavily guarded, and my wife is the only one who knows the answer with all the juicy details, so when you do an “Ask The Authors Wives” segment, perhaps this will be revealed…
(Kaye: You know Chris, that’s not a bad idea. Hmmm….)
Chris Barili: Of course. Anyone who says they don’t is lying. If nothing else, our characters pick up traits from us as writers the instant we put them on paper. I do have a woman with Parkinson’s as a character in a PNR novella I’m currently writing, though.
Tim Baker: People have asked me quite often, “which character in your books is the most like you?” I always give the same answer…”There is a little bit of me in all of my characters. How could there not be?”
Art Rosch: In my autobiographical novel, Confessions of an Honest Man, I have a character whom I love very much.  He is the jazz saxophonist Zoot Prestige.  He is Aaron Kantro’s mentor and  he knows enough about Aaron’s struggles during childhood to anticipate that Aaron is heading for difficult times. He admonishes his young friend.  He tells him “Ask for help when you feel overwhelmed.  You can’t get out of a crisis by yourself.  Remember what I’m telling you, ’cause I don’t like to give advice.  People who give advice are boring.  Just remember…when you feel like you’ve hit bottom, ask for help.” Aaron is a surrogate for myself.  I did ask for help.  And I found it.
Characters, especially your protagonist, must take action in order for the story to move forward. In order to take action, charactors must have some type of motivation. Motivation can come in many forms, usually an obstacle to be overcome. External obstacles such as nature, illness, or the institution must be tackled, but your character still needs to have some sort of inner motivation to take on the job.
The character’s flaws or fears are the basis for all character motivation. I mean think about it, if the character has a secret or a flaw they wish to keep hidden, it can be a motivator. Fear of what might happen may prompt a chacter to take action to avoid a negative outcome, whether that outcome is not being eaten by the monster, avoiding a punishment from the law or their parents or holding on to the love they’re afraid of losing. But, if you get right down to it, it’s not really the secret that motivates the character to action, but the fear of discovery that prompts them to do something about the situation.
What kinds of fears or flaws do you give your characters?
DeAnna Knippling: I love having characters who have blind spots, like the character who has issues due to PTSD remembering exactly who a serial killer was, because he was tortured by same, or the little girl who doesn’t have a lot of empathy until she’s experienced a situation or seen the consequences herself–and ends up hurting her friends.  I used to want to be a psychologist when I grew up, so there’s a wide variety of mental things going on with my characters.
Jordan Elizabeth: I try not to make my characters clumsy.  That feels overdone in YA literature.  I aim for emotional insecurities that they can overcome to be stronger at the end.
Tim Baker: I try to make my characters as “real” as possible. I give them whatever fears and flaws are necessary to fit the story. In other words I won’t disclose that a character has a fear of spiders if it isn’t relevant to the plot. I also trey to do the same thing with their flaws – without getting to cliché…you know, the alcoholic ex-cop bent on revenge…or the egomaniac villain stroking his white cat. Like I said – I try to keep it real!
Margareth Stewart: The main character usually takes the lead in actions, writing tone, and pace of the narrative. I give my characters autonomy to be doing so. This is something I have been trying to work out more and more with – the matching of the narrative and the main voice within the plot. If it´s a young girl in her thirties using slang and never settling down, the pace of the novel should be like that, too. That is in my new thriller Zero Chance. In Open/Pierre´s journey after war, for instance, I have crafted Pierre in slow motion, in pain, also moving slowly in time and space, and the narrative follows that way, too. So actually, it is all about giving the main character: the voice, the narrative, and the POV. I get a little tense if readers are going to understand that, anyway it´s how I have been working work my novels out.
Cynthia Vespia: Again, I like to base my characters in reality. That means giving them flaws and fears. The more rich development you can give to a character, the more the reader can identify with them.
Art Rosch: We all fear the same things.  We fear illness, pain, poverty, failure, loneliness.  Some of us fear death.  I’m not particularly afraid of death but I’m terrified by the processes that will inevitably take me there.  When I passed sixty five years I began a more intense conversation with death.  It changes things.  I transfer these emotions into my characters.  That’s what writers do.  We personify our feelings through the tools of literature.  I’ve noted that it’s much easier to identify with a flawed character.  People with addictions and weaknesses are much more approachable, they give us a warm and cuddly sensation.  Who loves perfect people?  High achievers give me the creeps.  I prefer characters who eat too many cookies in bed….or maybe have an appetite for substances….or maybe talk too much…you know…human beings.  In The Shadow Storm I have a world leader who is afflicted with bi-polar disorder.  It proves to be his un-doing.  The only characters who have no flaws are the villains.  Sometimes a villain can achieve an icy smoothness which is impenetrable.  There’s no way to approach a character like that.

Some authors claim that their characters come alive and not only talk to them, but take control of pen or keyboard and guide the scene in directions the author never expected. I personally experienced this while writing Delilah. Whenever I’d get stuck and not know where the story was supposed to go, I’d close my eyes and ask her, and she would make the scene unfold in my mind. And yes, there were times when the results surprised me, but the story was better for it. So, let’s ask our author panel what they think.



This quote found on “It’s All About the Words”

Do your characters ever do things that surprise you? Can you give an example?
DeAnna Knippling: My characters tend to annoy me.  “Oh my God, would you just stop being so…yourself?!?”  I tend not to remember specific examples because it all works out in the end, I’m just annoyed.  I have a real-life teenaged daughter, and she’s nowhere near as annoying.
Jordan Elizabeth: Constantly!  I never know where they will take the story.  An example I can think of is Treasure Darkly.  I didn’t expect Amethyst to play a big a role as she did, but she just kept jumping back into the scenes.
Janet Garber: My character decided to have an affair.  I was shocked. It didn’t fit in with what I knew about her, but as I wrote the scenes, I saw how it perked up the story.
Carol Riggs: Oh yes. In Bottled, my genie main character was supposed to get together with the love of her life after 1000 years of not seeing him. I imagined it in my head as this swoony and touching romantic scene. But when I got her together with her hot guy on a tropical island, they started arguing! It was really annoying. LOL After much frowning and deliberating, I decided to go with the flow and embrace the conflict.
Chris DiBella: Pat Vigil is always doing stuff that surprises me because I don’t even know what I’m going to have him say until I get to that point. I just imagine what he would have said or done in real life, and then I write it down. I’ve always been happy with the results. For example, there’s a scene in Whispering Death where the NESA team has been invited to dinner and they’re seated at a table with Thailand’s Prime Minister. The PM asks Vigil if he liked the lobster bisque, and Vigil blurts out, “Like it? I wanna bathe in it?” The best part about this scene is that it actually happened in real life back in my Executive Chef days. Pat was a server at my restaurant and one of his tables asked him if he liked the lobster bisque I had prepared that night, and that was his reply to the customer. So, there’s always that fun element for me when I’m writing.

Then there’s Tim Baker (yes, the same Tim Baker who’s part of this panel). I met Tim when I was 13 and he became a great friend and mentor to me after my dad died two years later. His friendship was much needed and appreciated, and that friendship is now going on over 30 years. He’s another person who’s character is close to how he is in real life, and I portray his book character in the same way as I just did here. I always try to interject him in the book one way or another, whether it’s just a friendly phone call to ask for advice, or as in my most recent novel, Blood Dawn, he actually has a role in the book. I didn’t make it too big of a role though, as I fear this would cause his head and ego to inflate to levels we wouldn’t be able to control…

Chris Barili: Sure they do, but of course I can’t think of one right now. Usually, it’s the bad guys who do it. But in Guilty (Prequel to the Hell’s Butcher Series), Frank Butcher surprised me with  how he ended the book and settled whether he’d go to heaven or hell. Totally was not planned. (No spoilers…read the book.)

Tim Baker: I would have to say that almost everything they do is a surprise, since I am basically learning about them the whole time I’m writing. I won’t give a specific example, but in my first novel, Living the Dream, one of the main characters is a perpetual loser named Kurt. His exploits surprised me so much that sometimes, as I was writing, I would literally laugh out loud at some of the situations he got himself into!

Art Rosch: My characters surprise me all the time.  Especially as I like to give them numinous powers and skills that are pure fantasy and wish-fulfillment.  I wish I could be more like Aaron Kantro.  Or more like Garuvel Zimrin, a man who has ultimate power but declines to use it any more than is absolutely necessary.  My characters talk to me and they appear in dreams.  They say things like “Go left”.  Or, “That spoon is funky”.  You know what the shrinks say: you are the main character in all of your dreams.  And this one from Jung: “Your pathology isn’t about what your parents did to you.  It’s about your fantasy of what your parents did to you.”

I was very surprised when Aaron Kantro went to Afghanistan and fell in with the Mujahiddin.  He was trying to buy and smuggle opium into the U.S.  He had sunk that low; become a criminal drug dealer and addict.  I was surprised by the way he was able to use his experience to change and heal his addiction.  I had to go through fifteen years of therapy.  Aaron found his healing in the cauldron of a Russian attack.  The friendships and bonds with Afghan warriors brought out the warrior in himself. Surprise is pretty much continual in writing.  I ‘m surprised I can write anything, much less finish so bold a project as a fantasy trilogy.  I’m surprised that I’m even conscious.

In more recent work I’ve created a world and a political situation that is based on the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.  This is my trilogy, The Shadow Storm.  I’m pleased with the first book.  The characters are from a completely different milieu than the one in which we live.  I have nothing in common with them except my membership in the human race.  This is a project that involved huge amounts of research.  I read everything I could get my hands on with regard to Balkan history.  In school I studied Russian for four years.  That helped me build a world with a strongly Slavic flavor.  World building is a great pleasure for me.  Creating new and bizarre religions, mapping out geographical features, the entire endeavor is one that challenges both my imagination and my erudition.  I have the additional satisfaction of avoiding the High Fantasy genre, the medieval world of dragons, knights, the whole kaboodle of Game Of Thrones lore.  I love the stuff, but it takes masterful writers like Jack Vance to hold my interest.  If you’ve never read Jack Vance, start now!  He passed recently, at the age of 96.  He left behind a body of sci fi and fantasy that must add up to nearly a hundred books.  I read them and re-read them every few years.  Vance is a better writer, technically, than Philip K. Dick.  The late and sadly lamented Phil Dick is more widely known, has sold more movie scripts than Jack Vance.  Between the two of them, I’ve learned almost everything I  know, which amounts to about a bowl of split pea soup.


Do your characters talk to you? What kinds of things do your characters say?
DeAnna Knippling: Yes, although it depends on the character.  Often a very strong character will make observations about the real world.  I have one guy I’m writing who doesn’t like to eat all that much, and mainly eats sandwiches.  He looks upon some of the things I eat with suspicion.  I mean, the guy doesn’t even particularly care for cheese.  “It’s fuel.”
Jordan Elizabeth:  They don’t literally talk, but as I’m writing, I can see them acting out the parts.
Chris DiBella: I don’t know that they talk to me. I just try to write dialogue and plot as it comes naturally to me. I do, however, feel like I have a strong emotional bond and connection to my characters. Every time I start writing a new book, it’s like seeing some old friends after an extended timeframe and I can’t wait to see what they’re up to next.
Chris Barili: No. I don’t exist in their world. They talk to each other sometimes and I overhear…
Tim Baker: I would have to say no to this one.
And now for the fun question.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead? Why would they be a good choice?  
Jordan Elizabeth: Megan Fox would be perfect to play Krieg in Kistishi Island.  She has Krieg’s attitude and looks.
Janet Garber: Dream Job, Wacky Adventures of an HR Manager’s protagonist, Melie Kohl, should be played by actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead because she can be goofy, smart and appealing.
Chris DiBella: I’ve been thinking a lot about this one lately, because I’m hoping my books will one day be on the big screen. When I began writing my first novel in 2001, I had a vision in my head of which actor looked most like my main character. That actor was Matthew McConaughey. Of course, Clive Cussler’s novel, Sahara, came out in 2005 and dashed my hopes of that ever happening…fyi: Cussler is my favorite author, so I wouldn’t want to steal his Dirk Pitt….but ya never know. If there was anyone more recent, I might have to say Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice). He’s got the charming personality and bad ass moves to get the job done….but only if he brings Fiona with him!
Margareth Stewart: Open/ Pierre´s journey after war has Pierre as the central character – I can easily portrait either Jeremy Irons or Clint Eastwood playing the main role in a film. They both have similarities with Pierre – tall, charming, with profound eyes – gentlemen. They have an inch of outsiders, a little bit like Pierre, too. It would be lovely to see them acting as Pierre.
Tim Baker: The lead character in most of my books is an ex-Navy SEAL named Ike. The prototype for him was originally the character of Wade Garret in the movie Road House (played by Sam Elliot). Since Sam is getting a bit old, I think the next actor best for the role is Anson Mount (from Hell on Wheels).
Cynthia Vespia: My latest Silke Butters Superhero Series was written with an Indian protagonist to showcase more diversity. While I was writing her I used actress Priyanka Chopra as inspiration so it would be a dream come true to have her play my lead Silke aka Karma.
It seems that we may all be different in our process, but our characters all come from the same place: within us. Everyone who answered it, said they use real people that they know to develop their characters and it seems our characters can’t help but have a little bit of us in them. Our stories and our characters are drawn from our own experiences, even if they are fictional, and our characters seem more real to readers when our writing comes from the heart. Be sure to drop by next Monday, when we will Ask the Authors about action and dialog.

If you have a question you’ve always wanted answered, but it’s not covered in the post on that topic, or if our panel’s answers have stirred new questions within you, pose your query in the comments. Make note if it is directed toward a specific author. Questions will be directed to the general panel unless otherwise specified. Then, in the final post for the series, I will present your questions and the responses I recieved from panel members.


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Our New World: An enigma filled with paradox

Our New World

Our New World, by Desiree King is the story of a diverse world united at last. Human, Vampire, Magi, Shapeshifters and Fae are all able to dwell in harmony at last, and Sidney and Darien the Dark Prince are both anticipating comeing into their own. But the laws of this new world require they must be wed to assume their rightful places, and they forbid them to marry one another. This is a problem because these two childhood sweethearts are all grown up and hopelessly in love. All the odds are against their ever being together, but Darien has a plan and Sidney is determined, and love conquers all.

The title causes a problem in logic because the characters are calling this “our new world”, but Sidney and Darien share a birthdate, and are both just coming of age, and it seems this new world structure has been in place for much longer than their brief lifespans to date. For me, it seems as if the characters would not be looking at this as their new world, but as the only world they have ever known.

Also my suspension of disbelief could have used more sensory details, to make me smell, hear and feel this world that the author has plunged me into.  In spite of the fact that the characters felt stereotyped and lacked depth, I liked them and found myself anticipating when I would be able to learn what happened next.

Also, I didn’t realize until late in the story who the antagonist was. We don’t see how really bad he is until well into the story, so appears as more of an obstacle to be overcome, rather than an adversary, right up until the scene where Henry punishes Sidney because his previous punishments have had no effect and it ticks him off. Only then, are we allowed a glimpse of his cold cruelty, and I have to say, the realization was a shock.

My biggest problem with this story was the fact that although the protagonist is reputed to be a deadly combat fighter and carries the blood lines of not only magi, but a powerful fire fae, it seems someone else is always coming to her rescue, either Darien the Dark Prince, or her bff and P.A., or her Fae grandfather, Eldon. I had difficulty buying into the idea that this spoiled little rich girl with status, was ready to step up and take a council seat or run her city, when she continuously put her own selfish desires ahead of what was best for her city or their new world. Oh, they talked about the possible consequences, but then she presses forward and does as she pleases without a second thought.

Despite this story’s many problems, I found the storyline to be one which held my interest and I found myself wanting to know what happens next. And after all, that’s what is important, isn’t it? I give Our New World three quills.

Three Quills3