Category Archives: Craft Tuesday

My obsession with words

POWer of words aI love words.   I roll them around in my mouth and taste each.    When I hear a new word, it tickles my ears and delights me.   Words carry history with them and emotion.   They are not formed only of letters but of  feelings and experience and much more.

My obsession began when I was in eighth grade.  In English class, the dictionary 2teacher would leave a dictionary on the desk in front of each row so we could look up a word and check spelling while we wrote a theme.   I usually finished my theme early and would spend those extra minutes in that front desk, reading the dictionary, learning new words, savoring them.

No wonder I majored in English and Spanish in college:  new words in two languages.    I loved the study of language, the history of words.  I could go on forever talking about root word, about how, in Spanish, words that began in F centuries ago changed to the letter H.  Consider yourselves lucky that I’m not going to discuss the verb satisfacer and how it’s conjugated.

My favorite word is from Spanish:  carcajada which means a deep belly laugh.    It sounds like what it means and has such beautiful rhythm.

words I loveI understand not all people love words as I do.  When I got excited about a word in Spanish and attempted to explain its origen or uses or something equally fascinating to my classes,  students looked at me as if I were absolutely nuts.   And, yes, I may be.

Do you have a word you like?  Perhaps because of meaning or sound?  Please share that.  I’d love to know and I won’t feel so alone.





Rudy Galindo, for example

Last week, I asked the question, “How is writing a novel like figure skating?”   In that blog, I stated there was one more similarity—and difference—to come.  For those of you who’ve been anxiously and breathlessly awaiting that, here it is!

Anyone remember Rudy Galindo?   In 1996, he seemed to leap from nowhere in an astounding singles figure skating  performance at the US Championships in San Jose.  I watched the program on television and could feel the energy of the performance and the energy from the crowd.  We were all enthralled at the beauty and perfection and energy of that performance.   And we all thought, “Where did this guy come from?”

There are writers like that.  Suddenly, with a first book, they become best sellers, shooting onto best seller lists while readers wait for the next book.   I know writers like that and I hate  envy admire them greatly, but most of us don’t appear like that.

My second point is this:   Rudy Galindo wasn’t suddenly hatched.  He didn’t show up at the competition and launch himself into spins and twirls.   He’d been working at this for a long time.  He was pairs partner with Kristi Yamaguchi until she decided to concentrate on her career in singles.   They’d won the US championship in 1989 and 1990.   He dropped out for a while but decided to return.  After a year of hard work, he burst–again–to the top of the figure skating world.

Even writers who appear suddenly have worked on their craft.  Jane Austen wrote her first books for the enjoyment of her family.   I have a friend who had the first book she wrote published and twenty more since.  She also has a PhD in creative writing.  Others have been journalists or have a number of completed and unfinished manuscripts under the bed that will never be published or took creative writing classes and submitted and entered contests and worked with critique partners.   Oh, I’m sure there must be someone who just wrote a great book with no background but, like figure skaters, most writers have spent years practising their leaps and foot work and tracing words onto paper until it finally comes out right.

Everything I learned about writing I learned on TiVo: Hooks

My husband says I am probably the greatest TiVo-er who has ever lived.   If I want to skip a commercial when I replay my programs, I know exactly when to begin to fast forward  because, immediately before the commercial, there is a hook, something that will bring you back to the program even if you’re slurping down a huge dish of ice cream on have taken  a potty break.  Whatever gets you to keep watching, to stay with or come back to the television is the hook.  Try it yourself—if you are nearly as good a TiVo-er as I am, you recognize the hooks at the end of a section but you may not have realized that’s the hook.  Look for it and learn from it.

On NCIS, it’s easy.  The picture freeze, the color changes to black and white, and the view wonders, “Why does he have that look on his face?”.  If the action or line makes the watcher helped wonder, it’s a hook.   When the action or the line brings the viewer back, that’s a successful hook. 

In Psych,  the program always begins with something Sean’s father, a retired cop, taught Sean when he was a kid.  The hook is the viewer wonders how Sean uses that to catch the criminal.

The hook is often a question, this one from CSI New York. “How did the only man who was not in the fight end up dead?”

Here are a few end of the chapter hook bys some of my favorite writers and some I’ve written to illustrate the point.  You will notice those by my favorite authors are good.  In my opinion, these two nearly force me to keep reading.

Harley Jane Kozak A Date You Can’t Refuse   “It actually helped having a plan of sorts and two people who knew what I was up to. . .  The comfort didn’t last.  It may have been an ocean breeze wandering a few blocks inland, but I was cold suddenly, and I found myself looking around, feeling as if someone was watching me.”

Rhys Bowen Her Royal Spyness   “I picked something from my skirt.  It was a piece of strong black thread. . .It dawned on me that someone could have strung it across the top of those steps. . .My attacker was indeed in the house with me.”

I love romantic suspense.  Obviously the two examples above are from RS.  Hooks in RS are easier to write because there’s suspense in the book.

But I’m not going to stop with that.  Come back the first Tuesday in February for more on hooks–if, of course, I remember.


Craft Tuesday: Character Driven Plotting

People always ask me, “Where do you find your ideas?’

After swallowing several snarky answers, I say, “They just come to me.”  Sorry if that sounds as if I’m still being snarky but it’s the truth.  And usually—nearly always—what comes to me is the character not the plot.  After the idea comes to me, often the beginning of the novel with the main characters fairly firmly created and in place, I build a plot for those characters to wander around in.

For me, this is the definition of character driven plotting.  It works best for me because I am able to wrap the plot around the character not forced to shove characters into the plot, often against their wills and come up with odd motivations and conflicts which don’t come from the characters but from the writer.

In my opinion, you can tell if the novel is plot driven or character driven if the heroine has to rationalize and explain why she’s doing what she’s doing—often over and over.  If her action comes from who she is as a character, we KNOW why she does this because the writer has introduced us to her and her traits.    If the action doesn’t fit this, if it is a twist on her character, a line or two will have us accept it.  If, however, the author has to have her act this way to promote the plot driven story, there will be several explanation and, to me, this interrupts the plot of the story.  On the other hand, if the characters drive the narrative, there may be some holes in the plot but–we believe–the characters are so charming the reader won’t care.  At least, that’s our excuse and our hope.

For example—and this is completely made up:

PLOT DRIVEN:   Mary is a grade school teacher who discovers a body on her front porch and decides to find the killer.  WHY?  I read this so often.  Most of us call the police and allow them to take over.   What motivates her?  Curiosity  and stupidity seem to be the answers but the author needs this to happen or she has no book.  The motivation really belongs to the writer and her dedication to the plot.  Over and over, friends tell her this is dangerous but Mary gives many reasons she give for doing this, none of which come from who she is but the plot.  Without her investigation, there is no story.

CHARACTER DRIVEN:  Mary is a grade school teacher who discovers the body of her best friend on her front porch and decides to look into this because the police have written this off as suicide.    She has no plan to find the killer but she knows her friend isn’t suicidal and wants to know what happened.   The investigation is more or less forced upon her.   What motivates her?  Love for her friend, the desire to know the truth, traits we already know because we’ve met Mary and observed her with her friend.  We know as a teacher, she’s not a daring type—I say this as a teacher—that she usually plays by the rules and respects authority so she must have a good reason to do this—not just take off on a lark.

What does the writer need to do if he/she wants to build a character drive plot? 

1)         Get to know the character and let her lead the way. 

2)         Introduce the character to the reader with some short scenes so the motivation makes sense.  

3)         Know the characters so deeply that they interact without the intervention or explanation of the writer.   This step came as a complete surprise to me in THE WEDDING PLANNERS OF BUTTERNUT CREEK, the third book in the Butternut Creek series–no cover available yet.  I introduce Janey Firestone in the first book,  THE WELCOME COMMITTEE OF BUTTERNUT CREEK  and Hannah Jordan in the third book.  Somehow, Janey becomes the catalyst for the changes that takes place in Hannah.  I hadn’t planned that.

If your characters don’t surprise you with their actions, then you haven’t written a character driven plot.  If your characters don’t take over the story and lead in another direction than you had chosen, you aren’t listening to them. 

In a character driven plotting, the characters really do take over.  Let them!





Craft Tuesday: The query letter Part 4

I forgot that the first Tuesday in September was supposed to be CRAFT TUESDAY and the last section of Writing the Query Letter.  I think I was hysterical as the month moved closer to my October 1 deadline.  I’ve submitted the complete to my editor.  I’m mostly sane again.  Here’s the final section.

This is a short because I’m winding things us AND hoping to be inundated with questions.

Two attachments I always include in the query letter.   1) the synopsis which I’ve mentioned before and 2) a contest/publishing history.  At a certain time in your writing life, you will have honors to mention.  As your contest wins or finals increase, as you publish in magazines or journals, there will not be enough space in a query letter and any such list will be confusing.    In the query letter, mention the really important information:  Golden Heart finalist, First place in the Emily.  Mention these also on the contest/publishing history page.  Repetition doesn’t hurt.  I always listed them most recent date at the top.  If you’ve written many articles, chose the most relevant and important.

Here’s an examples:

Publishing History of Jane Myers Perrine


The Mad Herringtons                     Avalon Books                                   2002

The Grenade in the Backyard        Houston Chronicle                           1999


Contests        (I’ve made all these up)                                                                             

Manuscript                            Contest/year                                  Placement/Genre 

The Turn of the Gerbil         Heart for Love  2004                  Third/Young adult

                                                         Far Away/ 2003                           First

Manny the Man                       Perfect Hero/2004                     Secon/Romance

You get the idea.  This is a neat, professional and very clear way to show your past work.  Sorry about the alignment of columns–WordPress doesn’t’ like them.

One more thought:  keep your query letter simple and easy to understand.  An on-line friend put up a letter she was going to send in.  The gimmick was that the heroine of the book wrote the letter in her own voice with her own information.  I’ve never been more confused because there was no explanation.  I didn’t say a word because I was a very newbie at the time and others who knew so much more thought it was wonderful.  I bet the editor didn’t.   Editors and agents go through thousands of queries a month.  If yours is hard to read or confusing, yours will not be read.

THE LAST WORD!   In order to interest an editor or an agent, you have to prove your talent.  The place to start is with your first contact:  a well-written query letter.

Any questions on writing a great query letter?


CRAFT TUESDAY: The Query Letter (Part 3)

 This blog is actually the second part of the last blog.  In July, I discussed the first two paragraphs of your letter.   With this one, I’ll summarize what you need to complete that letter.

PARAGRAPH THREE   Sell yourself—truthfully—as a writer, not a great mom or a fine person or a real sweetheart.

Do not write:  “I have to sell because I hate my job and want to quit.”  Not, “My mother loves this book.”  Sell the editor/agent on YOU as a writer, tell what is interesting/important about YOU as a writer.

1.  What’s best to mention   Start with your writing related history and credits.  Be sure to mention any significant writing groups you belong to, for example, member of Austin RWA but not “a group of friends get together and read our poems.”  Mention if you recently went to a national or large conference.  List  publish articles even if for small magazines.   After I sold my first book, The Mad Herringtons I realized I had few writing credits to and should get busy expanding that.  I submitted and sold to the Houston Chronicle and Women’s World Magazine so I had more credits.

You don’t have to list everything.  If you’re going the traditional road to publication—print—editors may not be interested in self-published or ebooks unless they sold gazillions of copies.   Publishing has changed a great deal from when I first presented this workshop and I do NOT wish to insult anyone who has published in the method he/she has chosen BUT an editor/agent might believe you self-pubbed because no traditional publisher would buy your book.  If you mention them, attach good reviews of high sales numbers.

2.  What’s relevant?  What should be in that paragraph?

a.         If you have experience in an area, use it.  I wrote a book about a marriage counselor (never published) so it was relevant that I have done marriage counseling.   I wouldn’t mention when pitching a different book.

b.         My father was a doctor. The Path to Love was about  an MD and an orderly.  I did spend a lot of time in Dad’s office and the hospital when I was a kid, but it wasn’t relevant enough to mention in a query letter.  

c.         I’m an ordained minister whose served—and preached in—several churches.  This worked well as a credit for my Love Inspired and FaithWords books but a secular company wouldn’t be interested at all.

NEXT:   THE CLOSING PARAGRAPH of only a sentence or two.

1.   If your query is in a letter, be sure to state, “Enclosed are a synopsis, writing history and an SASE,”  and make sure to enclose them.   The size of the return envelope and amount of postage depend on what you want returned.  Usually writers don’t ask  for the return of all material, only the letter from the editor/agent.

I always included a synopsis.  If the editor/agent doesn’t want this, they can toss it.  If  they are interested,  you’re a step closer and cutting down on time.

2.         Next:   “Thank you.   I look forward to working with you.”

3.         Say if they want anything more, you’d be happy to send it.

5.         Sign and send.

THEN STOP!  Don’t badger.   After 4-6 weeks, you may call or email.  After that, contact may be counterproductive.   After two or three months and another email or call, forget it.  Call it a rejection.  If it isn’t, that will be a nice surprise when you received a request for a full.

I’ll never forget the time I called and wrote an editor only to receive a really, REALLY  mean rejection which suggested strongly I had  no talent.  I feared I had badgered her too much.   I discovered weeks later that her father had just died.  We don’t know what may be going on in the life of an editor or agent so be senstive to that.  

If your receive a rejection, you MAY call and ask why.  I never have because, basically, I’m a wimp but I’ve know people who have.  Even if you’ve been rejected, you may want to write a thank you note.  The agent/editor will remember you and  you want that memory to be positive.

My husband and I published an on-line magazine many years ago.  We rejected a story and received three or four emails from the writer DEMANDING an explanation.  We decided we’d never buy from her because she was so difficult.    You want that memory to be, “What a nice person,”  “How professional”  or  “Probably would be nice to work with.”  EDITORS and AGENTS remember.  They also move around AND they have friends in publishing.

August 7th, I’ll post the final section of the query letter.    I’ll show you what I mean by “PUBLISHING HISTORY” and give some general thoughts.

Craft Tuesday: Query letter Part 2A

 You’ve got your list of editors/agents who are interested in what you write, so let’s start the letter.  When you submit a query,  what better place to to prove your talent and professionalism than with  a well-written letter?          

The letter should be only one page long.  Publishing professionals are very busy people.  Send a one-page query with lots of white space on it, and they’ll probably glance at it.   Send either a two page query or a one-page letter with narrow margins and they’ll probably think, “I don’t have time for this.”   

The query letter will contain three paragraphs and a closing.  This format is true whether in a written letter or an email. 

PARAGRAPH ONE:   Introduce the proposal   

1.            Mention if you’ve met this editor/agent before and/or if this was requested.      

a.            Start with a hook, a  concise, one-sentence tagline for your book. It’s meant to hook your reader’s interest, and wind them in.  Think of description of programs in TV Guide or something like a short blurb that would be used on the back of your book.

My favorites were lines that had started my thinking about  books but I had to cut from the novels because  they didn’t fit once I’d written the book. 

From The Path to Love:    “Francie Calhoun met Jesus and the devil on the same day”

From Second Chance Bride:  “Annie MacAllister buried herself in the hills of central Texas  one warm October afternoon.”

Some great hooks are descriptions of your book as a combination of popular themes or plots like King Kong meets The Black Knight.    This is probably how Abraham Lincoln:  Vampire Hunter  started.

Used a marketing idea you know is popular with the line you’re targeting:  cowboy, hidden baby, vampire, amnesia, etc.   This shows you have done your research.

If you can’t think of a hook, just give the information and move on:  Tootsie’s Terrible Trek is a humorous 100,000-word contemporary novel set in Chicago.

b.            ADD the reason you chose this editor:   “I have read many novels in your Twinkle-Toes series and believe this would fit well.”  “This story is targeted for the Twinkle Toes line.”  Again, this shows you’ve done your homework  and are targeting this editor and line. 

With an agent, mention exactly why you’re approaching him/her.  Compare your book with others they have  represented in the past.  For example, “Because I know you like novels set in Chicago, I would like you to consider representing this book.”  Or,  “I read many novels by your client Tasmin Butler.”

c.            The first paragraph MUST include:  word count,  line, type of book. 

d.            You may mention a main character if needed for the hook as I did with Francie Calhoun and Annie MacAllister.    You might use, “When Annie Smith discovers her fiancé . . . .

If necessary in the hook, you may mention time or place but that information is probably better in the second paragraph. 

Either here or in the final paragraph, for an editor, you may mention if complete (I never did because they usually weren’t).  For AGENT, the manuscript must be complete.

I’m often asked, “Should I mention if this is a part of a series?   I always answer, “Why?”  I believe it’s best to choose the best book you have for this line/editor/ agent and try to sell this ONE.   If the editor likes this one, mention the rest.  If not, why would he/she care about more?  An agent may like fact you’re prolific but an editor might think you haven’t been successful if you’ve completed a couple of books and haven’t  sold one.

However, I’m also told that today editors are looking for a series.  When I sold The Welcome Committee of Butternut Creek, I had only vague ideas for a second and third book.  Amazingly, my editor gave me a three-book contract without even asking about the second or third.  know if I had even a tiny idea of the other books. 

This means, I don’t know if you should mention this is a series.  I’ll leave that up to you.

PARAGRAPH TWO:           This should be a SHORT synopsis, only a few sentences.  You should be sending a synopsis with the query.  If the editor/agent wants to know more, you’ve enclosed that. 

For a reason I’ve never understood, you must use all PRESENT TENSE—or almost all.  There will be some thoughts that don’t work well in present tense, but attempt to do that.

Do not end the short synopsis without wrapping the plot up.  “You’ll just have to buy the novel to find out what happens next” will make the editor toss the letter in the REJECT basket.   “After they escape, Matt and Tootsie declare their love.”

Show your voice through word choice.   If you write humor,  instead of, “The two women traveled through France,”  write, “The two women wreaked havoc on Western Europe” or “Millie and Sara danced their way from Paris to Cannes.”    

Make sure you set the mood and the time.  “In a fetid swamp in seventeenth century Louisiana. . . ”

Show the conflict that will carry the book.  I  “When shy Ann Smith meets the flamboyant Pookey Reynolds–”   “After a hard life as a mod hit man Bob  Benson discovers the woman of his dreams is a cop (nun). . .”  Sketch in conflict but you have no room to explore in this paragraph. 

Use few names because they’ll need explanation and you don’t have room.  Instead of Mary Davis, Bob’s boss, use “mob boss”. 

Here’s an example of the second paragraph, one I just and very quickly wrote about my first book, The Mad Herringtons.  Look it over.  What works here?  What doesn’t?  What’s missing?  Learn from it and write a better one!

“During the glittering Regency period, Aphrodite, the eldest and most level-headed of The Mad Herringtons,  attempts the impossible task of controlling  her headstrong younger siblings who seem determined to misbehave.   Before she is able to announce her engagement to the reliable Frederick, she must meet his mother.  For that reason, she and two sisters attend a house party at Frederick’s  estate.  When they arrive, she finds Warwick, the rake whose kiss she has not been able to forget, is also a guest.  As they present Midsummer Night’s Eve for the house party, Aphrodite discovers she truly is a Mad Herrington finds happiness with Warwick.”

See you in August for information about the next two paragraphs

Craft Tuesday: The query letter, part one

A query letter is, very simply, the way you sell yourself to an editor or agent.  It’s your first contact and the first impression you’ll make  so it has to be good! 

Someone once told me that a query letter should be different for an editor and for an agent.  I don’t know why.  Yes, some small things–such as list of writers editors work with vs. list agents represent–will change but with both of them, you’re writing a pitch.   You are selling yourself, your talent, you voice, your vision and your book.

For both editors and agents, RESEARCH is the most important part and that starts before you write that query letter.  That is the first and probably most important point of this series of blogs.  Very simply, if your proposal lands on the desk of the wrong person, it will not sell.   It may not sell if it lands on the desk of an editor who buys the line you write, but it certainly won’t sell if you send an inspy to Blaze.   Editors have told me that a huge percentage of proposals and/or queries they receive are not in the type of fiction they publish.  Why waste your time and theirs?  Do you really want another rejection?

Because I did my research,  for the three years before I sold,  every editor I queried requested either a partial or complete.   Editors want to find new authors.  If you send a competent query to the RIGHT editor, he/she will ask from more.  Repeat that sentence several times until you believe it. 

With agents it’s harder to get a request.  They know the areas they represent so well, they know exactly what will appeal to the editors they often work with they may reject a marvelous manuscript because they know Susie Editor at Wonderful Books isn’t looking for an amnesia story now.  Also, the agent may represent several authors in the genre you write and cannot take on another without having her clients compete for slots.  The word is that it’s harder to get an agent than to sell to a publishing company.   I believe it.

So, first, know your market.  But how?  I write women’s fiction.  I learned about writing in Romance Writers of America (RWA).  For those reasons, what I write will have to do with the women’s fiction/romance market.   It is applicable to anyone writing a query letter in any market, but you’ll have to alter it to reflect your field.

One of the first stops would be a guide to the market.   You can buy this (check reviews first) or find it in the reference department of the library. 

On the RWA members’ website, there is a full list of RWA-approved editors and another of approved agents.   Cynthia Myers sends out emails about the market for free.  Lots of places to look.   Goggle publishing market.   You’ll find a bunch–make sure you can trust them.  Predators and Editors is also a great place to start research.

Ask other writers, especially published writers.  We know most of the larger publishing companies and can tell you in a second if you’re targeting the right place or give you information about an  editor.  If you know someone represented by or working with an  agents or editor you’re interested, asked many questions.  When I asked a friend about an agent I wanted to sign with, my friend said people often find her brusque.   I could not work with someone intimidating.  Some writers want unvarnished honesty.  I don’t handle that well.   I need honesty covered in layers of bubble wrap. 

About ten years ago, I got a letter from an agent who wanted to represent me.  At first, I was dancing, then I had some questions.  She’d received only a partial from an unpublished writer and wanted to represent me?  Seemed odd.  And don’t agents call when they want to sign a client?  So I went to an RWA site and asked anyone who knew about this agent to get in touch with me.  What I heard was enough for me to turn this down.  Another time, I loved chatting with the agent.  She was even discussing movie deals–wow!  Still I went on line and discovered only the previous day she’d been dropped from the list of approved agents due to a violation of RWA standards.  With a third, I knew how much trouble a friend had had with an agent, but I thought she was a top agent and signed with her.  After all, I’m a lovely person and we’ll get along fine.  No, we didn’t.  As with my friend, she never submitted anything and never gave me any feedback.  I fired her after nearly two years and lost that much of my career.  Ask questions and listen to answers.  Don’t give up part of your career with a bad agent or one that doesn’t fit.

Second, go to a conference and network.  Meet professionals and writers.   At a conference, I once sat next to a writer who’d just started her first book .  As we chatted I asked, “What line are you targeting?”  She didn’t know.  I asked other questions such as how many words, then asked, “How many sex scenes?”  She look at me as if I were a pervert.  “Does that make any difference?”  Yes, it does.   Some lines expect a hot book with at least two fully consummated scenes.  The lines I write for do not want sex scenes.  So, again, you need to know this. 

I strongly suggest you check the credentials of publishing companies and agents.  So many new companies are springing up it’s hard to know if all are legitimate.   With the disaster at Dorchester, even what had been considered reputable companies took the money and ran.   The first company I sold to (not that I ever got any money), went bankrupt.  I was lucky to get my rights back only weeks before they went under.  I would have   lost that book forever, wound up an asset with a bankrupt company.    

Next Craft Tuesday:    Practical tips about writing the letter!   (July 3)