Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Happy Accidents Writing Method

I've been asked how I come up with writing ideas. The real truth is I often don't know where they come from, but I learned a long time ago to take an initial idea and write with an open mind.

What does that mean?

Every manuscript begins with a simple plot idea. For example, my first western-romance began life as a joke. One of my good friends likes traditional westerns, so I figured I'd throw him a curve. I would write a classic western that would end in a gunfight between the fastest female gun fighter in the country and a young male upstart nicknamed the Maker of Angels. Figured my buddy would never see that coming.

Here's what happened...

The story got away from me. As I crafted a plot device to precipitate that male-female showdown, the story grew. It exploded into a tale of forbidden love between a white cowboy, Colton, and an outcast Indian woman, Kaga Ishta, in a world where hatred between races was the rule.

What started as a subplot morphed into conflict between two tough women for the love of Cole. Along the way, he grows from a naïve young journalist into the Maker of Angels, a deadly gunfighter with blinding speed. In the end, he faces Tess Winslow, the lady gunfighter, with the captive Indian as the prize. But, before he meets her in the climactic event, his quick-draw mentor warns him, "She's faster'n you, Cole."

Does my writing method have a name?

Kind of. I call it the Happy Accident Writing Method. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that my stories don't come from countless hours of tedious plotting, detailed character outlines and predetermined plot. That just does not work for me. The energy and action in my books comes from freedom to "follow the story" as it unfolds. I love dead ends and plot walls. I thrive when my characters are trapped or in hopeless trouble. That is where creativity gets a workout . . . solving problems. In essence, my stories begin with a concept. From there, open-minded exploration leads me along the general plot. My only rule of thumb is to wander as much as I want, so long as I end up back on the plot.

Does this mean I have no fixed ideas when I start writing?

Oh, heck no. Every writer has a signature style. For example, all three of my most recent stories share certain similarities. I respect women readers so my stories provide complex plots with intricate storylines. Female main characters are not weak little ladies hoping a man will make them whole. Quite the contrary. Most are tough as nails while my male MCs are equally strong, often knocking heads with their women counterparts. Another signature of my writing is action. I get bored easily, so my stories carry as much pace as I can support without burning out readers.

I hope readers trust that they can always count on my stories to keep those promises. Whether a fan reads one of my western-romances, a thriller or sci-fi, the overall theme will always keep the promise of strong characters, intricate plots, challenging pace and unexpected turns. And, a lot of it comes from "happy accidents."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Indie Authors – Craft Your Book Cover

“Covers sell books.” Have you ever heard that expression?

Covers are supposed to catch visual attention and be interesting enough to get a potential buyer to read my title and blurb. Actual purchasing decisions follow if the reader likes my description.
Would you read the blurb?
Can a cover influence a reader's decision to buy? Of course. The old expression, “a picture says a thousand words,” suggests that if I am careful about cover design, it is possible to enhance the impact of the blurb. Cover art, though, can be a double-edged sword. It establishes expectations that must be matched by the story, or readers may feel let down.
The story on the left is a horror story. Does the cover art match the genre?
How do I approach cover design and layout? I consider six issues:

First, know my limits. I am NOT a graphic artist, so while I do know how to manipulate pictures, fonts and layout, I generally run my ideas through the pros. If I need a detail to be altered, I prefer to engage skills of the artist to achieve the change(s) even though I own Corel Draw, Corel Paint, Adobe InDesign, CoverPro and MarketingPro software...just in case I need to make changes myself.

Second, graphic artists are not writers. They will never “know” my story like I do. It is MY responsibility to communicate exactly what scene or images I want. What is the most important scene in the book? Is there a general theme to the story? Do I want character images on the cover? Remember, if I include detailed character images, then those had better match what my reader will discover inside the story.

Third, I call this element “mood.”  If I wrote a horror story, I want a dark “mood” established by the cover art. In my western-romance stories, conflict between a cowboy and cowgirl will always be represented in the cover along with suggestion of rough living in the old west. In my sci-fi book, The Last Human War, chapter five includes an epic space battle where two massive battle cruisers collide. My graphic artist developed the scene. His first concept was close but not exactly what I wanted. We worked together until it met my expectations.

What mood do you think this book cover on the right represents? This story will be about children who have been programmed to kill. It's a cross between a thriller and a mystery. Does this cover get the message across? What about the boy on the cover? If the boy in the story is a blue-eyed blond, then the cover needs to be changed to match the character descriptions.

Fourth, ownership. I do NOT use “free” or “leased” graphic art. Why? I do not want others to steal my images and use them in any way. I like to make posters, book marks, web pages and other promotional items from the images that I OWN. Also, if I own the artwork, I never have to worry about somebody demanding that I pay them for some part of an image that they own, but was included in a free image I imported.

I own this 100%
Fifth, credit. Most graphic artists get very little credit for their talent. I believe it is ethical and respectful to give credit for inspired artwork to the creator. If I help them to grow their business, they tend to bend over backwards to work with me on creating a fantastic cover.

Sixth, color. Did you know that the predominant color of a cover suggests a theme? Take a look at this interesting color chart provided to me by literary agent, Stacey Donaghy. I love this information. Thank you, Stacey!

All this talk about making a good cover doesn’t help much unless you know where you can find good graphic artists to do your bidding. Author Sass Cadeaux recently referred me to several cover art resources. I engaged the services of one of them. Thank you, Sass!

Let me introduce you to that company: SelfPubBookCovers.com.


I’m quite impressed with the quality of their pre-made covers and the simple tools they offer to build cover fonts that achieve the writer’s story image. They purchase covers from a number of graphic artists and sell them at outrageously low prices. In addition, I needed major changes to one cover I bought, and the owner of the company, Rob, contacted the artists on my behalf and produced a fantastic custom cover that will be revealed in a few weeks. The best part? I OWN the final artwork 100%!

Building a quality cover in this day and age is simple. Indie authors can compete successfully with the best traditional cover art designers. Just follow the simple six guidelines above and your book will look fantastic.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Page Turners, Part II—PLOT

Back in December, I posted my thoughts about the relationship between writing structure and pace for creating “page turners.”

Here’s the link if you missed it:

In today’s blog, I’d like to share my thoughts about the first element in creating a fast-paced story—a great plot.

What is plot?

Everybody knows that plot is the primary story line, but it’s really more than that. Any story idea can be used to generate a work of fiction, but what is the difference between a run-of-the-mill story idea and a kick-ass plot?

A great plot must produce strong tension. How does it do that? Conflict. All tension is driven by conflict, but not all conflict creates great tension.

Consider Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises. To me, it sucked. Conflict came principally from internal angst of the main character who loves the female lead, but can never consummate the relationship with her, yet she beds several other men during the story. In my opinion, it was little more than a soap-opera-by-book before television popularized the sport of sexual infidelity. Its action scenes bored me. I suspect its success back in 1926 was probably due to public voyeurism as establishment readers enjoyed titillation from the story’s description of the sexual freedoms embraced by the “lost” generation. Really tame stuff by today’s standards.

There is a valuable lesson in my experience with The Sun Also Rises. PLOT IS NOT UNIVERSAL. Each plot has a target audience. My dear Mr. Hemingway would not find me to be a suitable reader of his first major novel, because his plot does not interest me. I simply don’t feel the required tension to make the story compelling.

On the other hand, I loved his book Old Man and the Sea. This plot intrigued me—a classic man versus nature battle with brilliantly written internal dialog and scene narration. Tension was palpable for me. In fact, I read it more than once.

Therein lies my impression of the importance of plot to writing the “page turner.” Writers like me must know our intended readers for our stories and carefully select plots to match. Conflict that matters to a reader will keep that person turning pages as fast as possible. It’s kind of like watching a sport. If the observer likes the sport, it is exciting. But, if the sport is golf, oh my God, how boring, at least for me.

I try to understand my readers’ needs when I take a basic plot and flesh out my story. For example, I have a war story, Palace Dawgs, written with men in mind, especially former soldiers. Will women like it? Some will. Some won’t. But, from the very beginning, the story caters to those story elements that will enhance tension through war-related conflict. This plot will be compelling for the right set of readers.

On the other hand, Maker of Angels is a western romance story about forbidden love between a white cowboy and a renegade Indian woman. It follows the growth of the main character from a naïve young college graduate to a highly skilled gunfighter who ends up in a gunfight against impossible odds to save the Indian woman he loves. Women who enjoy complex stories and highly developed character conflict with a romance theme are my target audience.

Botton line? Plot meant for a clearly defined group will lead to a page-turner experience for those readers. Once the audience profile is understood and the ideal plot developed, then magic will happen.