Interviewing . . . Me!

What genre are your books?

A Spark of Heavenly FireAll of my novels have elements of intrigue, adventure, mystery, suspense, romance, history, and some have a touch of science fiction. A Spark of Heavenly Fire, for example, is the story of people who become extraordinary during a time of horror — a bioengineered disease is decimating the population of Colorado, and the entire state is quarantined. One character is obsessed with finding out who created the disease, one couple tries to escape, one woman does what she can to help the survivors. A thread of romance connects all the stories. All these different stories entwined into one makes it difficult to settle on a single genre, though many reviewers call it a thriller, and my publisher, Second Wind Publishing, sells it as mainstream.

What are your favorite genres?

I like to read novels that have it all — mystery, adventure, romance, a touch of strangeness, a bit of truth — but since I can’t find that sort of novel very often, I settle for just about anything. Non-fiction, genre fiction, literary fiction, whatever is at hand.

Do you think you gain sales for your books through blogging?

I know I’ve made a few sales because of blogging, but I don’t think blogs are a particularly good sales tool. I do think blogs are wonderful for connecting with readers once readers have discovered you, they can be a great source for support and suggestions, and they are a way of meeting people who like the same things you do. Mostly though, I just enjoy blogging.

Tell us about your book, Daughter Am I.

Daughter Am I is a young woman/old gangster coming-of-age novel.

When twenty-five-year-old Mary Stuart learns she inherited a farm from her recently murdered grandparents-grandparents her father claimed had died before she was born-she becomes obsessed with finding out who they were and why someone wanted them dead. Along the way she accumulates a crew of feisty octogenarians-former gangsters and friends of her grandfather. She meets and falls in love Tim Olson, whose grandfather shared a deadly secret with her great-grandfather. Now Mary and Tim need to stay one step ahead of the killer who is desperate to dig up that secret.

What similarities if any between your other books and Daughter Am I?

The unifying theme in all of my books is the perennial question: Who are we? More Deaths Than One suggests we are our memories. A Spark of Heavenly suggests we are the sum total of our experiences and choices. Daughter Am Isuggests we are our heritage.

Do you sell your books as an eBook?

My books are all available for sale as ebooks, and the first 30% of each is also available free on Smashwords. The books are also available in print for those who still prefer to own a physical copy of the books they read.

What do you think the most influential change in book publishing will come from?

25% of the total production of books printed by the major publishing companies are pulped, which is an incredible waste, so I think more books will be digitally printed as needed. It makes sense financially, especially if the cost of production goes down. Ultimately, e-books will become the preferred format for “disposable” books, such as bestsellers that readers will only read once.

If you could give one tip for aspiring authors, what would that be?

I’ll tell them that a book begins with a single word. Many novice writers get intimidated by the thought of writing an entire book, but all you ever need to write is one word. I know that’s not much of a goal, but in the end, it is the only goal. That’s how every book all through the ages got written — one word at a time. By stringing single words together, you get sentences, then paragraphs, pages, chapters, an entire book. After that, who knows, you might even reach the pinnacle and become a published author. All because you set your goal to write one word.

Where can folks learn more about your books and events?

I have a website — http://patbertram.com — where I post important information, including the first chapters of each of my books, but the best way to keep up with me, my books, and my events on a daily basis is here on this blog: http://ptbertram.wordpress.com

All my books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, and Smashwords. Smashwords is great — the books are available in all ebook formats, including Kindle, and you can download the first 30% free.

What do you do to promote other authors?

I do author interviews and character interviews, and post excerpts on my blogs, and I don’t charge a penny! Of course, since the authors get what they pay for, I can’t guarantee they will sell books because of my efforts, but they will be promoted via Facebook and Twitter. If I you are an author and interested in being interviewed by me, click here to find the directions for my Author Questionnaire. Click here to find the directions for my Character Questionnaire. And click here to Let me post your excerpt!

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

On Writing: Get Off the Bus!

In a blog post on the Second Wind Publishing blog, author Paul Mohrbacher wrote: “At a writing workshop two years ago I heard this advice: Don’t spend time driving from one place to another in your fictional story. All you can do in a moving car is talk, talk, talk, or if you’re alone, think, think, think. It slows your story down. There is no room in a transit narrative for action. Get off the bus!” (Click here to read the rest of the article.)

trainThis is actually good advice, and yet there are many novels that take place on a trip — on trains mostly, which makes sense. A train trip is leisurely, which gives plenty of scope for both character and plot development, and is much more romantic than a bus ride.

I wrote an entire suspense novel that takes place on a small bus, one that was big enough to fit eight people (because that’s how many characters I had!). In Daughter Am I, my characters are going cross country to find out who Mary’s grandparents were, why someone wanted them dead, and why her father had disowned them. Much of the story is “story time” — the characters telling about their past, and it is in these stories that Mary finds the truth. Of course, they do get off the bus occasionally, but emotion and connection are part of the “action” of a story, so as long as they are present, it’s okay for characters to stay on the bus. Also, in Daughter Am I, the drive makes it seem as if the story itself is going somewhere, not just the characters. Each leg of the trip carries with it the hope of finding the end of the quest, and instead turns them in a different direction. Literally.

Two of my other novels also involve lengthy trips. In More Deaths Than One, Bob travels halfway around the world on a quest to find out the truth about himself, and in A Spark of Heavenly Fire,, world-famous actor Jeremy King travels to the ends of Colorado in a quest to save himself from the disease that ravaged the state and the quarantine that was supposed to keep the epidemic controlled. During each of these journeys, the characters learned more about themselves or we learned more about them and their quest, so the journeys were important to the plot.

Sometimes, though, a trip was just a place to get the characters from one place to another, in which case, I skipped any narration about the trip, merely saying they are going to a specific place and picking up the story again when they arrive.

And sometimes (though never in my stories) there is a lengthy car chase. Car chases seem to fit more with the visual construct of a movie than with a written story, because viewers see the narrow escapes and so get involved, though such chases also find their way into novels. Either way, I find them boring. In fact, they put me to sleep.

So yes, get off the car, or bus, or train, or airplane . . . except when something important to the story is happening in the vehicle.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

End of the Trail

Poor old Santa looks like he hit the end of the trail.

End of the Trail

If he conked out before he brought you one of my novels, you can download 20-30% free at Smashwords.com in the ebook format of your choice. Or you can read the first chapter online before deciding which one you’d like to buy.

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More Deaths Than OneBob Stark returns to Denver after 18 years in SE Asia to discover that the mother he buried before he left is dead again. At her new funeral, he sees . . . himself. Is his other self a hoaxer, or is something more sinister going on?

Click here to read the first chapter: More Deaths Than One

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A Spark of Heavenly FireIn quarantined Colorado, where hundreds of thousands of people are dying from an unstoppable, bio-engineered disease, investigative reporter Greg Pullman risks everything to discover the truth: Who unleashed the deadly organism? And why?

Click here to read the first chapter of: A Spark of Heavenly Fire

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DAIWhen twenty-five-year-old Mary Stuart learns she inherited a farm from her recently murdered grandparents — grandparents her father claimed had died before she was born — she becomes obsessed with finding out who they were and why someone wanted them dead.

Click here to read the first chapter of: Daughter Am I

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Thirty-seven years after being abandoned on the doorstep of a remote cabin in Colorado, Becka Johnson  returns to try to discover her identity, but she only finds more questions. Who has been looking for her all those years? And why are those same people interested in fellow newcomer Philip Hansen? And what do they have to do with a secret underground laboratory?

Click here to read the first chapter of: Light Bringer

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Pat Bertram is the author of Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I.All Bertram’s books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords.  At Smashwords, the books are available in all ebook formats including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free!

A Gift for a Grief-Stricken Friend

Grief: The Great Yearning by Pat BertramI haven’t really promoted my book Grief: the Great Yearning. It seemed crass and insensitive to capitalize on people’s grief, but the book has been a big help to many who have suffered a significant loss such as a husband or a parent. If you need a gift (or a stocking stuffer) for someone who is grieving, please consider giving them a copy of Grief: the Great Yearning. It might help to bring them comfort knowing that someone else has felt what they are feeling.

The print version of Grief: The Great Yearning is available from Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, Barnes and Noble. You can even give the ebook in any format as a gift. Just go to Smashwords and click on “Give as Gift”.

If there are people on your Christmas list who like to read, please check out my other books. I’m sure they’d like at least one of them!

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More Deaths Than OneBob Stark returns to Denver after 18 years in SE Asia to discover that the mother he buried before he left is dead again. At her new funeral, he sees . . . himself. Is his other self a hoaxer, or is something more sinister going on?

Click here to read the first chapter: More Deaths Than One

***

A Spark of Heavenly FireIn quarantined Colorado, where hundreds of thousands of people are dying from an unstoppable, bio-engineered disease, investigative reporter Greg Pullman risks everything to discover the truth: Who unleashed the deadly organism? And why?

Click here to read the first chapter of: A Spark of Heavenly Fire

***

DAIWhen twenty-five-year-old Mary Stuart learns she inherited a farm from her recently murdered grandparents — grandparents her father claimed had died before she was born — she becomes obsessed with finding out who they were and why someone wanted them dead.

Click here to read the first chapter of: Daughter Am I

***

Thirty-seven years after being abandoned on the doorstep of a remote cabin in Colorado, Becka Johnson  returns to try to discover her identity, but she only finds more questions. Who has been looking for her all those years? And why are those same people interested in fellow newcomer Philip Hansen? And what do they have to do with a secret underground laboratory?

Click here to read the first chapter of: Light Bringer

***

Pat Bertram is the author of Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I.All Bertram’s books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords.  At Smashwords, the books are available in all ebook formats including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free!

Whose Book Is It?

We writers do the best we can to tell an engaging story, hoping readers will like what we have written, but often readers see something in the story that we didn’t purposely put there.

Sometimes this “extra” is good. A reader once pointed out that A Spark of Heavenly Fire was about love in all its guises. He was right, that is a major theme, though that hadn’t been my intention. I wanted to write a big book, an important book with ordinary people becoming extraordinary in perilous times. Since I didn’t want to do a war story, I did the next best thing — created an epidemic so deadly that the entire state of Colorado had to be quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease. To “personalize” the catastrophe, I told the story from several points of view, not just character POV, but the various ways the characters viewed the epidemic. And what shone through, by the time all the stories were told, was the theme of love in all its guises.

DAIsmallBut sometimes the “extra” that readers find is not so good. Daughter Am I is the story of old time gangsters. A young woman inherits a farm from murdered grandparents she didn’t know she had — her father had claimed they died before she was born. When she confronts her father with his lie, he merely responds, “They were dead to me.” She becomes obsessed by the mysteries of why her grandparents had been murdered and what they had done that was so terrible their only son cut them out of his life.

She tracks down her grandfather’s friends, most of whom had lived nefarious lives, and she gradually learns who her grandfather was. At the end of the book, her actions mirror what she has learned about her grandfather, and so she learns the truth of him.

This is the book I had written — a young woman searches for her grandfather, and finds him in herself, in her outlook on life, in her dealings with others.

One friend who read the book was reticent to tell me what she thought. She admitted she loved the characters and the writing, but then she finally said, in a hesitant voice, “But the ending isn’t exactly moral, is it?”

In thinking about it, I had to admit it wasn’t strictly moral, but the ending was inevitable since it fit the search-for-identity story I’d written. I didn’t really think anything more about it until I saw a review where someone liked the book and the characters, but didn’t like cynicism of the book — that anything is justifiable as long as you treat your friends right.

These two comments made me wonder about the truth of the story. Was it really cynical? Really immoral? I wasn’t trying to make such points. I merely wanted to tell a “hero’s journey” story about gangsters. And gangsters, by definition are immoral. If they weren’t, if they were law-abiding citizens, they wouldn’t be gangsters, they’d be corporate executives. (Well, maybe that’s a bad example, considering how many stories of larcenous corporative executives end up in the newspaper.)

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what story they read, at least not from my perspective. The truth of any story is in the minds of readers. We writers can only write the story we know how to write, then send them out into the world to make whatever they can of themselves.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” All Bertram’s books are published by Second Wind Publishing. Connect with Pat on Google+

When a Writer is Silent . . .

I am not shy around people, though I am more of a listener than a talker, particularly when they are discussing subjects of which I have no interest or knowledge, such as celebrities, TV shows, high profile court cases. Even when people are talking about things I can speak of, I generally don’t fight for the floor except when the conversation sparks a new idea and I want to give it voice.

My propensity for being the “designated listener” has never been a problem because most people seem to prefer to talk, but things are different now when people discover that I am a writer. My silence makes them wonder if I am studying them to use as characters in a book.

Strangely, this never occurred to me. I spend so much time alone that simply being with people is a treat. I bask in their words and the camaraderie no matter what the topic of conversation. I know this is not the case with other writers. They do study people to learn more about how their characters should/could act. They also use people they know as characters in their boFriendsoks. As Anne Lamott said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”

My characters rise out of the needs of the story. If the character needs to be shy, I make him shy. If she needs to be interested in the minutiae of everyone’s life, I make her so. Occasionally, I base a character on an actor in a movie, especially if I need to describe the character to someone. For example, Greg Pullman in A Spark of Heavenly Fire was loosely based on Jack, Bill Pullman’s character from While You Were Sleeping. I wanted Greg to be movie-star handsome as well as nice, and I named him Pullman to remind me of these two characteristics every time I wrote about him. But for the most part, the character of Greg evolved to fit the needs of the story. The same thing happened with Mary Stuart, the hero of Daughter Am I. I based her loosely on Lisa Walker, the character of Mary Stuart Masterson played in Bed of Roses, and I used the name Mary Stuart for my character to remind me that my Mary, like Lisa, was both strong and vulnerable. The name was supposed to be a working name — I planned to change it when I found a better name, but the character and the name evolved together, and could not be separated.

So, if you are ever in a conversation with me, and I am silent, you never have to worry about appearing in one of my books.

Well, hardly ever.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Dialogue (Part 2)

[This is a continuation of a previous post: Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Dialogue (Part 1)]

Dialect and regional accents are especially tricky to write. It used to be that writers tried to show dialect and accent through the laborious use of phonetic spellings and a blizzard of apostrophes. Today, though, we readers don’t like having to decipher the author’s personal code. Nor do we writers need to take the time to create the code. It’s better to use colloquialisms and broken language to show regional differences. For example, “I done died and gone to heaven.” Not an apostrophe or phonetic spelling in sight, though you know immediately the speaker is not a high-toned college professor from Boston.

If your character has a foreign accent, you don’t have to bludgeon a reader with it. All that is necessary to portray an accent is to say the character speaks with an accent. If you wish, you can use phrasing to remind the reader of the accent, such as, “We will go to the store. No?”

This snippet from Daughter Am I shows Crunchy’s difficulty with English:

“Mary’s trying to find out about her grandparents,” Kid Rags said. “His name was James Angus Stuart.”

Crunchy shook his head. “Don’t know no James Agnes Stuart.”

“What about Regina DeBrizzi Stuart?” Mary asked.

“Don’t know her neither.”

talkingDialogue is an artificial construct. Dialogue does not mimic conversation but instead gives readers the impression of realistic conversation.

Books on how to write dialogue often suggest listening to people talk to learn how to write dialogue. Seems like good advice, but have you ever truly listened? “We . . . um . . . we, like . . . you know . . . we stammer and like we repeat ourselves and um . . . you know.”

Even when we speak coherently, we don’t converse. We lecture. We tell long, boring, convoluted stories. We interrupt others and talk over them. We use clichés. We tell jokes that take forever to get to the punch line. None of which helps us write dialogue. If characters in books talked the way we talk in real life, who would bother reading? We want our characters to sound like us, just not talk like us. We also want their conversations to be witty, to the point, and conflicted.

In life, most of us cannot come up with that clever quip when we need it—it comes to mind (if at all) late at night when no one is around to be impressed. Our characters don’t have to suffer from that malady because they have us and our late night epiphanies on their side. We can change their words as often as necessary to get it right.

And get it right we must. Good dialogue advances a story and shows character interacting with other characters. Good dialogue makes a reader keep reading. Bad dialogue, no matter how crucial to the story, makes readers go in search of other amusements.

The following is another excerpt from Daughter Am I showing the use of dialogue.

*     *     *

Mary noticed, for the first time, her father’s receding hairline, the deep crinkles at the corners of his brown eyes. Soon he would be as old as Kid Rags, Teach, and Crunchy.

Tears stung her eyes at the thought of her father living alone in a dingy hovel, and she vowed she would not let that happen.

Realizing the silence was stretching out awkwardly, she opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a palm to forestall her.

“I don’t want to know what you’re doing,” he said. “Whatever it is, I know it’s something you feel you have to do. I thought you should be aware you’re upsetting your mother.”

“I don’t mean to.”

He heaved himself out of the chair. “That’s all I came to say.”

“I’m glad you stopped by,” she said. “I planned on calling you later anyway to tell you I’m going to be away for a few days.”

He stared at her for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to accomplish, but I suppose you know your own mind.”

You are so wrong. I don’t know anything.

He walked to the door, paused with his hand on the knob for a second, then turned to face her.

“I love you,” he said softly.

She swallowed. “Oh, Dad. I love you too.”

He opened the door. “Be careful, okay, honey? You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”

***

This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Dialogue (Part 1)

One of the hardest techniques for new writers to handle is dialogue. When I first started out, my characters never just said something. They agreed, cautioned, reminded, mimicked, answered, contributed, guessed, explained, responded, admonished, confessed, encouraged, clarified, blurted, pointed, winced, replied, corrected, acknowledged, returned, laughed, challenged, chided, objected, contested, quipped, offered, moaned, complained, repeated, stammered, pleaded, inquired, mumbled, interrupted, confirmed, addressed, countered, advised, completed, allowed, supplied, ordered, asked, continued, chided, answered, whispered, teased, requested, hollered, echoed, declared, informed, spoke, bellowed, spit out, thundered, hissed. All within a few pages. Whew!

Even worse, I would sit and agonize over the way my characters spoke. “He responded sparingly.” “She informed him haughtily.” He mumbled sadly.”

dialogueIt was a joy to discover that modern dialogue relies primarily on “said,” such a common word, the reader’s gaze glides over it as if it were invisible. It was even more of a joy to discover that adverbs are frowned on. The dialogue itself, or the beat—the bit of action accompanying the dialogue—should show the character’s emotion. “I hate you”, she said angrily tells us what the character is feeling. She picked up a rock and threw it at him. “I hate you!” shows us what she is feeling, allowing us to become intimately involved with the character. The only time an adverb is necessary is when the character’s words are at odds with his mood, such as: “I had a great time,” he said sadly. You can also use an occasional “ly” adverb to describe the tonal quality of the character’s voice. “I hate you,” he said softly.

Besides helping identify who is speaking, beats help set the stage, tell us about the character’s personality, and vary the rhythm of the dialogue. Overdone, the beats are as distracting as any other speaker attribute, so the secret is to pay attention to the flow. Do you want short snappy dialogue? Don’t use beats. Do you want to slow things down a bit, keep the dialogue from seeming too disembodied? Use a few beats.

It’s hard to write crowd scenes and keep each character identified without resorting to copious “said”s, but beats keep the scene moving and, if you use beats that are specific to your character, you make the various characters come alive.

This excerpt from my novel Daughter Am I shows the use of beats. The scene is between my hero Mary, a young woman in search of her grandparents’ murderer, and a group of feisty octogenarians who are trying to help.

*     *     *

The man stopped bouncing and let his arms drop to his sides. Now that he stood relatively still, Mary could see he was skinnier than she’d first thought. A gray slouch hat tilted toward one eye, but the baggy pants cinched high above his waist and the bright flowery shirt several sizes too large marred the jaunty effect. His hands shook uncontrollably. Parkinson’s disease?

“You must be Happy,” she said.

Frowning, Happy patted his torso. “Must I be happy?” His voice deepened to what Mary assumed was his normal tone. “Can I be happy? Can anyone truly be happy?”

“His name is Barry Hapworth,” Kid Rags said, flicking a bit of lint off his navy pinstriped suit jacket. “For several obvious reasons, everyone calls him Happy.”

Mary glanced from the bus to Happy. “Were you driving this thing?”

Happy puffed out his meager chest. “Sure was.”

“And did you almost run over Mrs. Werner’s cat?”

“I’ll take the fifth.” Happy paused for a fraction of a second. “A fifth of bourbon.”

“Did someone say bourbon?” Kid Rags removed the flask from his hip pocket, took a swig, and passed it around.

“Who are all these people?” Bill asked from behind Mary.

Mary turned, wondering how she could explain the situation to her fiancé, but Teach saved her the trouble and made the introductions. Arms still folded across his chest, Crunchy nodded to Bill, then stepped close to Mary. Happy punched the air, but stopped when Bill showed no inclination to fight.

Kid Rags shook Bill’s hand. “You’re a lucky man.”

“What are you all doing here?” Mary asked. “I was supposed to pick you up. And why is Happy here?”

“Happy is a friend of Kid Rags,” Teach began, but Kid Rags interrupted him, saying hastily, “Not a friend. Just a fellow I know.”

“Happy knows someone who knows Iron Sam,” Teach continued, “and since we knew your car wasn’t big enough for all of us, we accepted Happy’s offer to drive us in his bus.”

“Who’s Iron Sam?” Bill asked, sounding plaintive.

“Butcher Boy,” Kid Rags said.

Bill’s eyebrows drew together. “Butcher Boy? Mary, are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

Mary laughed, suddenly feeling lighthearted and carefree. “I haven’t a clue.”

***

This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Keeping your Characters Consistent

Consistency makes for a good lemon meringue pie—you don’t want globules of lemon ruining the texture of the smooth filling. And consistency makes a good story—you certainly don’t want globules of untruth ruining the texture of your readers’ belief. I admit I’m stretching for an analogy, but still, the point is that readers will forgive a writer almost anything except inconsistencies that interrupt the flow of the story.

I once started to read a book where a man spirited away the Shah of Iran. According to the author, the Shah lived fifteen years beyond his supposed death in 1980. The operation was so secret and so successful that no one knew about it. But… It took only this one very high profile achievement to assure a solid client base for the man. Supposedly, word travels quickly in the very elite circles of power, and so the demand for the man’s services was always in excess of his ability to produce.

What??? If no one knew that the Shah survived his death, how could word travel? And if word did travel, how could high massesprofile clients remain “dead,” especially since most of them were hiding from those in the elite circles of power? The inconsistency took me out of the story, and I never did finish reading the book.

It’s almost impossible to keep inconsistencies from slipping into a story, which is why self-editing, though vital, cannot be the final editing process. We writers see consistency because we see what we meant to say. Others only see the inconsistency. I am grateful to one of my editors for finding one particular inconsistency in Daughter Am I. The editor wrote, “It’s not clear here whether or not Mary completely removed her shirt. If she did, when she stood up and ran to the bathroom, then turned around and had the conversation with Tim, she’d have been completely topless. Given their feelings for each other, and their state of undress, it seems unlikely they would have been able to have such a lengthy conversation without biology taking over sooner.”

Oops. I completely missed that. Mary took off her shirt so Tim could massage her sore back, and when the massage turned heated, Mary (engaged to someone else) runs from her feelings and hides in the bathroom. Inadvertently, I had her brazenly opening the bathroom door, standing half-naked, and starting a casual conversation—not at all what my poor innocent Mary would have done. After traveling halfway across the country in the company of seven old gangsters (well, six gangsters and one aged ex-night hall dancer) she’d lost most of her naiveté, but still, she would not have flaunted her naked breasts.

Naked breasts may pale in comparison with unsecret secret operations, but the inconsistency could have dammed the flow of the story for discerning readers. So, the moral of this tale is, if you remove your heroine’s shirt or other apparel, make sure you remember her state of undress and write accordingly.

***

This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Purposely Flawed Characters. Or Not.

Interesting characters make interesting stories, not the other way around. An author develops interesting characters by putting them under pressure, giving them much to lose, and allowing them to change because of their experiences. And the author makes these characters at least a bit larger than life. Who wants to read about characters who sit around watching television all the time or who repeatedly have the same tiresome argument with their children or who can’t resolve their problems? We deal with that every day. We don’t need to read about it. On the other hand, if the traits are too idealized, characters come across as comic book silly.

Depth of character is revealed in the choices a character makes while at risk. Without the element of risk, there is no real story, only a string of episodes. Think what Superman would be like without Kryptonite—totally uninteresting and flawed flawedin his perfection. But Kryptonite is a purposeful flaw, put there to make Superman more interesting, which makes him seem even more of a comic book character. Oh, wait. He’s supposed to be a comic book character!

To offset the problem of idealized characters, many writers try to create a purposely-flawed character, such as a boozing cop or a mother who can’t communicate with her teenager, but this seems an unnecessary distraction unless, of course, it is a vital part of the character’s motivation. So many flawed characters, particularly heroes with a drinking problem, have been done so often they have become nothing but cardboard cutouts. There is a long tradition of hard-drinking detectives, but there has to be a more creative way of giving characters flaws. Or not. Writers are often enthralled with the idea of flawed heroes, that they are missing the point. They don’t have to give their heroes obvious flaws. By making their heroes realistic, the heroes are automatically flawed.

A character must lose occasionally or make mistakes. Where is the suspense if every time a character attempts to do something she succeeds? And in that loss is a shadow of the flaw, because the setback must be realistic. Did the character lose because of arrogance, assuming she knew what to do when she didn’t? Did the character lose because she wasn’t physically fit or knowledgeable enough? Did the character lose because she didn’t plan correctly, because she was unfocused, because of her inner conflicts? Such losses force a fully realized character to change so in the end she can succeed.

In the beginning of Daughter Am I, twenty-five-year-old Mary Stuart has no real direction, no purpose, but when she learns she inherited a farm from her recently murdered grandparents—grandparents her father claimed had died before she was born—she becomes obsessed with finding out who they were and why someone wanted them dead. She drives halfway across the country with a feisty crew of octogenarians, friends of her grandparents, and even though she discovers they all had ties to the mob, she doesn’t let her good sense override her obsession. This understandable obsession is her flaw, and if she didn’t grow during the course of the story, if she didn’t learn from her setbacks, the obsession could have become a fatal flaw. Fatal or not, flaw or not, Mary’s obsession makes her real, makes her a bit larger than life, and makes her interesting.

To be real, a character must have strengths and weaknesses, but it’s not enough simply to assign a special strength or weakness to a character—the quality needs to be tested. You can do this in one of two ways—play on the strength or play on the weakness. For example, if a character is smart but lacks physical strength, you can either place the character in a situation where the character’s intelligence saves the day or you can put him in a situation where he is forced to rely on physical abilities he doesn’t have.

Strengths are arbitrary and can easily become flaws. Independence can become an inability to depend on others, an ability to cope can be seen as indifference, high ethical standards can become intransigency. Which is great for a book—the resulting misunderstandings can cause conflicts among characters allows the plot or subplots to thicken. And your characters become even more credible.

***

This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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