Dogs Dont' Cry

I've been very absent from blogging, mostly due to deadlines, vacation, and now my working dog, Bo, who was diagnosed with cancer. Please follow his story at We are raising money to pay for his surgeries, so I'll be posting items for sale here and on his blog site, and I'll be publishing stories on Kindle about lives he's touched. Here's the first entry on his blog site...If nothing else, please enjoy it as a storytelling experience. Thank you, and blessings to you and your family and pets!

While giving me a long-overdue-haircut yesterday, instead of chiding me for ruining my hair with hotel shampoos and swimming in chlorinated pools and rinsing in a salty Caribbean, my hairdresser, Zan Schmidt was crying.

Pictures of my chocolate lab/rottie mix, Bo, slid across my laptop screen as Zan (Tussle Salon, Seattle) snipped away and two-inch strands fell around me. I blew the hairs off my keyboard to click another photo, awaiting her approval. We needed Bo’s five best shots, and Zan has a great eye. When her eyes aren’t clouding with tears, that is.

Zan’s not just a dog lover, but a dog rescuer. A few years back, she’d received a Katrina dog through a “reputable” agency, but a year later the owner showed up and demanded the dog back. That broke Zan’s heart. Eventually she adopted another dog and is back in doggy heaven, happily scooping poops and paying vet bills to keep her little buddy healthy. But she knows what it’s like to lose a dog-friend.

Now her heart is cracking a little again.

“Don’t cry,” I said. “He’s not dead yet.”

“I can’t help it, he’s so sweet,” she said, running to bathroom to wipe her eyes.

As she later blew out my healthy hair, we chose the final shots and I explained my plan. I needed the photos for an exhibit at my local Roosevelt Starbucks, an opportunity I happened to be offered that morning when I told the manager, Jen Sinconis, that I’m creating ways to raise money for Bo’s surgeries. Bo had walked with me to Starbucks—he’s all about the treats Jen gives him—and was watching us through the window.

“He doesn’t know he has cancer,” I’d told Jen, who has a Boston/Staffordshire terrier mix and is adopting an Australian shepherd this weekend. “He just wants to play with his dog buddies.”

Jen knows what it’s like to fight to save lives. Her twins nearly died as infants, so she wrote a book about her journey called “A Pound of Hope” ( to help other families find hope. Hence, Jen understands I’m doing everything I can to raise money for Bo’s surgeries.

We’d saved for our vacation to the Caribbean in November, celebrating our 5th wedding anniversary at our honeymoon hotel. A much needed trip away from reality after my husband’s health scare and a summer of discussing wills and life insurance. What we hadn’t saved in cash for the vacation, we put on our credit card. Then we came home to find a tumor in Bo’s mouth.

Cancer. That word just sucks. Most of Bo’s upper left teeth, bone, and maybe even nasal passage are expected to be removed. We’ll know more when we get the biopsy next week to tell us which type of cancer. But already we’ve hit $1,000 in bills, and we haven’t even started the removal surgery! Then there’s the CT scans and X-rays next week, a consult with the oncologist, and then the big surgery. We see thousands of dollars in bills zooming toward us, but never do we want to make a decision based on lack of money. Whatever we can do to save his life, we want the money to be ready.

And so my fundraising brain is in high-drive, and I’m combing through things I can sell, such as his photos, my classes, anything.

The bone will heal, the dental vet told me. Still, I wondered after the surgery what face I’d be snuggling at night as I stared at his handsome chocolate lab profile, like he’s posing for the camera in front of Mt. Pilchuck, WA. I tell everyone Bo thinks he’s Frank Sinatra, but he’s really more like Dean Martin. Part crooner, part ham.
As I went to pay for my haircut, Zan pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, “You’re not paying me today.”

“Of course I am.”

“No, this is my contribution toward Bo’s cause. Merry Christmas.”

Now I’m the one crying. Kindness is tough to swallow right now. It softens me when I need to be hard, when I must push forward, get appointments scheduled, and be cheerful around Bo when I really feel like doubling over sobbing. I can’t let him see me down, or he’ll try to console me and absorb sad energy, which he doesn’t need.

You see, Bo is not just a pet, but my working buddy. He helps me rehab dogs for behavior problems, like Daddy helped Caesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer. Bo’s also been to a classroom with third graders, worked with kids with autism, and visits the retirement home and assisted care facility, where my mother-in-law lives.

And Bo was basically my assistance dog when I got PTSD after two years of caretaking for my mother-in-law, who has dementia. Bo was my companion in public when just being in a room of other people made me shiver. He saw me through, for better or for worse. So the least I can do is not fall apart around him.

I hugged Zan hard and headed to my art studio, my office as an author, to work on Bo's images. I’d barely made it through the door when my studio mates burst forward with hugs and chocolate. Beth ( and Martha ( are sisters who paint watercolors that sweep you into another world. When they originally invited me into their studio, they said dogs were welcome and encouraged.

Annie, their golden retriever, had been a client because of her excitable dominance and anxiety issues, so she and Bo were already familiar. They became fast buddies after we moved in, and I’m including a muddy photo of her in the exhibit book to honor her.

Unfortunately, we lost Annie this past summer. On a Friday she was diagnosed with lymphoma, a very deadly cancer in dogs, and she was going downhill fast. On the following Monday she was put to sleep. Cancer really, really sucks. Bo and I had visited Annie to say goodbye and Bo acted like nothing bad was happening. Maybe he did know she had cancer, maybe he didn’t. Dogs don’t cry. They just want to play.

To my studio mates I explain my plan to save Bo’s life, that I hope we need the money because I want him to NEED the surgeries. The alternative is worse—if the cancer is too far gone, then we may have to make the decision Beth and Martha made for Annie. But I’m praying that doesn’t happen. Already his blood tests came back clean, which is a good sign the cancer hasn’t metastasized. So I’m fighting to raise the money to give us surgery options.

And here are my friends to fight with me. Beth tells me I’m not paying rent on the studio next month. And Martha wants to donate too. They want to help spread the word. Again, I’m stunned, and those damn tears start pushing through.

And I’m smiling too. Everyone loves Bo. He’s touched so many lives, so many dogs, so many humans. I’d decided to "retire" him from working this past summer, because he absorbs anxiety from other dogs and humans and I wanted him to be free of that and live out some "retirement" years. Yet here he is, touching lives again, bringing folks together.

But it’s more than his magic happening here, I realize. It’s the magic of kindness. And it’s Bo’s turn to receive.

ENCORE POST: Creating Characterization through Dialogue

Characterization is the painting of a character in a story through narrative, dialogue and action. Done well, the character will come to life on the page as if they are a real person.

Done poorly, and the author has succeeded in creating cardboard. And the reader will never forget it.

As Noah Lukeman puts it in his book, The Plot Thickens, "...character is the basis for all further talk of journey, conflict, suspense—and is the cornerstone of plot..."

Characterization is achieved by the author through the careful delivery of external (descriptions of how the character looks, walks, drinks their coffee) and internal information (how they act in any given situation, who they interact with, the decisions they make, the decisions they don’t make). Note that these do not break down the same as internal and external dialogue.

Nouns and verbs chosen for dialogue directly affect the intensity of tone and the reader's perception of the character. These words can reveal whether the character is dominant or submissive, passionate or dispassionate.

Also, the choppiness of dialogue sentences and whether the character speaks complete sentences may tell the character’s attitude or even education level. Consider how terse dialogue is spoken by a character who is combative, how sensitive phrases might be used by a caretaking character. Doing the reverse can be even more interesting. Consider how jokes from a bank robber make his/her character more interesting.

Remember: In fiction, what they say IS who they are. Even and especially when the character is lying.

Getting to the Heart of Characters

Because it's such a difficult subject to get right, let's talk more about inserting Heart into your novel. Not the Heart of the story, but the Heart of the character, so that the reader cares whether the character wins or loses.

First, what ISN'T Heart... When a character "owes" their life/career/marriage/etc to someone else, that debt does not constitute Heart. Neither does the fear of losing life/career/marriage/etc. These just puts strings on her behavior and represent Motivational aspects in the character's development, also known as their Arc.

What is Heart? Think about what your character would sacrifice whether he/she felt like she owed or not and regardless of his/her fears. That's where Heart is: beyond the self, beyond paying debts owed, beyond fear.

Heart is about rising above the self for a greater good, a greater belief that is so core to the character it makes them "worthy" of our trust, admiration, and esteem.

Heart is based on one's values/ethics; what the character will die for to uphold. A villain will die to uphold his grip on power, perhaps because it's what makes a man righteous with God in his mind. Icky, yes, but deeper POV than just "he likes power" right? That's Heart, even though it's dark.

Similarly, a hero will fight to save the damsel not because he's meeting the definition of heroic, but because he's driven by fears, hopes, and values. Again, the fears and hopes part is related to his character development. The values part is connected to his Heart--what he values makes him valuable in this world (i.e. worthy of our caring about him in your book) and is the strongest motivation for taking up the mantle of Hero and saving the day.

Like a fireman who will run into a fire to save a child not JUST because his father abandoned him as a kid, not JUST because he's afraid of never feeling loved/worthy in life--lots of folks feel that way and don't run into fires. But he will actually go into that fire, will risk his own life, because of his core beliefs. For example, he might believe a child has no power to defend itself, so it's an adult’s duty to protect the innocent because that's how a sane community (read "family") treats its own. That value would define a lot of his behavior, and make you trust that man with your child any day!

So you see, the fears and hopes and pain of the past INFORM a character's core values. In the example above, he is choosing to be the hero he needed as a child to 'right' the world that wronged him. He doesn't want another child to hurt like he did. But even more than this avoidance of pain, he wants to do it because it's right for the higher good.

So yes, Heart stems from fear and pain and old debts, but it's something higher, an elevated belief. It's taking all that pain and fear and incorporating courage and power and a little beautiful humanity.

This is deep psychology folks. Not easy stuff. If you've ever read "A Prayer For Owen Meany", you know that Heart drives the whole book. And it's unforgettable. That's what I want to help you achieve with your story. And once you really understand how to reveal Heart for your character, your future books will get easier to write.
The Editor Devil.

Tips for Self-publishing Your Best Work

Since we've been discussing the self-publishing eBook path (and I spent the weekend doused in such conversations at NW Bookfest in Kirkland, WA.) I thought I'd give those who choose this route a few tips and tricks.

1. This Writer's Weekly article, Top Signs a Book is Self-Published, helped point out some of the no-no's that make you look like an amateur.
2. The reader forum on Amazon titled "Dear Author: Please Don't..." is great for finding issues that annoy readers. Like naming your hero character “Rafe” in a Romance. Been there, read that. But you can't take all the reader remarks seriously, or else you'd never be able to finish a book!
3. More than anything, I want to press the concept of good editing. No one should publish to Kindle material hasn't been copyedited and proofread. Personally, I use an editor named Lisa Costantino (, because I trust her with my stories and my career.

That being said, I recently sent out my manuscript without having sent it to her first. Well, despite being an editor of 25 years, I’m dyslexic and can’t proof my own work. In fact, I sub my proofing for this reason. Let’s just say I later found all kinds of errors in my manuscript. But now I can’t take back sending it. Lesson RE-learned!

Please, please, please, authors...DO find and editor/proofreader you trust, and do your due diligence on the manuscript before you send it to agents or publishing editors and especially before you publish to an eBook format!

Best to you,
Your Editor Devil

Know Your Business: Indie eBook or Traditional Publishing

So I'm reading about the indie eBook publishing revolution till my brain is numb. But that's part of being a good author--being a solid business person. You have to know your business as well as your craft. After all, if I can't afford to stay in business, I won't produce much writing!

My advice to fellow authors is to do your research and think very carefully about which direction you should to go to be published: indie ePublishing, such as Amazon, or traditional, such as one of the Big 6 NY houses (which aren’t really six, but that's another conversation).

Did you know:
10-20% of Barnes & Noble's Top 100 come from PubIt?
Amazon owns around 80% of ebook marketand about 20% of print in the UK ?

Now there's a lot of information to wade through about ePublishing vs. traditional publishing, so I've got a few links to get you started.

1. First off, read the sales stats for eBooks. This is an industry that's doubling sales every few months. My two favorites are:
B) (these are last year’s stats, but shows the pattern)

2. Second, know how readers find eBooks so you understand where your audience could be:

3. Next, read how some compare the traditional model with the independent model. Warning: despite the rants, there's a lot of logic to their cases. Mostly, writers have been getting the worst of the profit margins for a long time and the new model offers them a way to greater financial success and personal control.
A) Kris Rusch: (wade through the 1st half to get to the meat of the article)
B) And her husband, Dean Wesley Smith, on thinking like a publisher:

4. Now you need to understand whether YOU should indie publish or not. Whether you have a backlist (many books already written and published and the rights have reverted back to you) or you are new and therefore a frontlist author. Bob Mayer gives one of the most frank observations of this topic at

5. And if you need examples of some agents eliminating the traditional NY publisher middleman from the model...

These articles should be enough to get you started understanding the basis for this revolution and why you need to think for yourself so you don't fall into the same old pitfalls authors have been experiencing for years.

Frankly, I'd like to believe my readers and my students have the strength of self-esteem to NEVER work for free as an author (don't make me have to hunt you down and smack you upside the head!)

But I think the real lesson here is that it's important to stay open to change. And not to be afraid to take your career into your own hands. We're the only ones who are responsible for our success and failures.

Personally, I have submissions with several agents as we speak. And I have a couple publishing houses in mind that I'd like to target. (Berkeley, are you out there?) But I can't afford to be a fool either. Even if I get offers, I have to weigh the financial benefits and risks to my career. That and I have to answer to my partner and most patient husband.

So I'm keeping that indie eBook door open for now... And that's the best way to manifest the future: to believe that I'm going to publish means I WILL be published. Either way, traditional or indie, it's true.

In the meantime, our job remains the same: write amazing stories that capture your readers. And love every moment of being an author, both the craft and the business.

Cheers to all our successes! And please share this to your fellow authors and tell me your favorite sites/articles for info on these subjects...
Your Editor Devil

Change Your Flat Tire Verbs

If you're struggling with creating more active verbs in your novel, one way to make it easier is to do an edit pass where you switch out verbs based on which sensory experiences you want to highlight, either on behalf of character development or setting or tone of the book.

Where to start? To be verbs are the obvious choices when hunting and eliminating. Then there are weak or everyday verbs, like walk, run, see, hear, talk, breathe, eat, smell, yell.

If I want to create a fog and gaslight London, I'm going to use moody verbs. Instead of "walk" I might choose "slink" or "glide" or "trudge" depending on the character. If it's a bubbly YA novel, I might use more upbeat tone in the verb, like "bop along" or "skip" or "bounce". My husband tells me I don't walk, I bounce. And since I often wear a ponytail, that bounces too. He thinks it's cute and adorable. Great. So much for ever looking hot and sultry!

Back to changing out your flat tire verbs.... Let's look at a more intricate example, let's change verbs based on character development. Say I'm introducing my photographer character, Jules, so in those first few pages there might be more visually-oriented verbs. To balance these out, I'm going to add that she is a very tactically-oriented person. And because she used to be a war photographer and now has PTSD, the world easily ramps up a few notches on the tension scale for her.

So, using this example profile, Jules doesn't “run” she “sprints/bolts/flies”. She doesn't "see" skyscrapers in NY she "fixates on the masses of glass and steel cutting the sky and dominating over her space." Okay, dramatic, but you get the idea.

When in doubt, choose a more dramatic verb than you intended, and then scale down. It's easier to find the right word and balance this way. And if you are using Word, you can test your Passive Voice percentage (i.e. the use of to be verbs) by selecting the "Show Readability Statistics" option embedded in the Spelling- and Grammar –check. This post’s content earned a 0% passive voice.

Go forth and edit, lads and lasses.
Your Editor Devil

Protecting Your Character's Voice

 A student asked me today how to protect character voice. Her experience with an editor, who slaughtered her character's dialogue and made the character say things not only the author felt were inappropriate and silly, but that went against the character's personality.

In my opinion, she had a bad editor match. A good editor should forage for the source of your disconnect.

Of course, they have to first know there is a disconnect. You have to stand up for your characters. It's not uncommon for authors to have to fight to maintain voice for themselves and their characters.

That' being said, here's something else to think about. The editor may think the character’s voice is weak, and so is beefing it up with changes. So sometimes you have to consider that the writing isn't strong enough and is being changed for a reason.

When an editor gives a suggestion, they are doing so based on the material at hand and how they judge the character from it. If you have not conveyed your character the way you think you have, the editor may judge the character inappropriately. And thus make suggestions not in line with your thinking. This is again an issue of the writer not making the character so strong on the page that the dialogue voice and style are crystal clear (even if the words needs tweaking).

Every once in a while my critique group (3 of whom are pro editors) will give me feedback that isn't in line with my character. I'll tell them that's not who the character is and ask what I've done to create the misinterpretation. Usually this clears up the matter: that somehow in the book I’ve mislead the reader on expectations. Again, it falls to me, the author, to be clearer.

Go forth and be clear.
Your Editor Devil.

Heroes as Villains: 6 Tips to Still Achieve a Character Arc

In literary fiction, we get all kinds of heroes, from sassy and brash, to sweet and romantic, to the anti-heroes who are self-loathing or wildly edgy. I personally love the anti-heroes of James Joyce's The Dead and Ulysses.

Typically, heroes in fiction face an external villain as well as the villains inside themselves. Doing battle with both really ups tension and relief and allows readers to fight vicariously against the wrongs in society.

But in Romance fiction, and most of its sub-genres, the hero is also the villain to the heroine. He's a grump or a tyrant or a renegade. Maybe he's the Rochester to your Jane Eyre, a married and bitter man to a sweet and innocent, though world-weary, ingenue.

Know the Villain Inside & Out 
The point of the book is for him to "get" the heroine, which means the hero's villainy must be "overcome."

The issue is that the hero never really overcomes his bad-ass self in Romance. Often, he just learns to manage it better, such as when he's around the heroine. Frankly, if you take away his edge, he's a mush-man. And no heroine (or her reader) wants a mushy guy in a true Romance.

And that leads us to a character arc problem. The hero MUST change, MUST improve himself in order to win the heroine's acceptance.

Follow These 6 Tips to Achieve a Character Arc 
So, how do you ensure change while allowing him to maintain his edge? Here are some examples of change the hero might present (based on the traditional male/female Romance relationship):

1) He's still a bad-ass, but she's now his ally. You don't bite your own pack member.

2) He uses his powers for good, not evil. He's more clearly aligned with defending innocents and battling bullies, especially as she "sees" them.

3) He lets her be on top. Ahem... I mean, he allows her to dominate in more areas, such as money or decisions or even where they eat, with the caveat that he "believes" he's still in charge. If you are already handling your husband this way, then you know what I mean.

4) He's willing to set aside friends in the name of love. Okay, so the guys will see it as a booty call, but the heroine needs to believe she's his #1 priority, not the Thursday Poker Night with the fellas.

5) He's more open to her than anyone else. More honest, more available emotionally, and more revealing than he previously was. This may be a change of centimeters as opposed to miles, as with the hero Roarke in JD Robb's "In Death" series, but so be it.

6) His edge is seen as an acceptable, if not cute, character flaw by the heroine. This is because she's able to overcome it through guile, wit, or just plain love.

This list surely can go on, but this will give you some tips to move that hero forward on his character arc, so your readers feel more satisfaction in seeing him truly change. But not dissolve into pudding.

Go forth and conquer!
Your Editor Devil.

Description vs Plot

One way to drag pacing and undermine reader engagement in fiction is to not offer a strong plot. And one reason for this problem is the substitution of extreme detail in lieu of plot.

Some authors are so good at writing description and setting and micro events, such as body movements, that they focus on this material at the expense of a larger plot. They literally give play-by-play movements of the characters--how they make coffee, how they pay bills, why they choose one grocery store over another.

But that’s not a story. That’s description. Story is based on major events taking place. People moving and changing. Plot is change on the macro level.


Let's write an example to make plot more obvious.

Plot is like the guy who packs a bomb into his luggage and heads for the airport; you can't avoid thinking about him.

On the next page you have two lovers having their first date. They're going to her favorite Italian bistro. He’s a gentlemen with all the right moves.

Meanwhile, the guy with the bomb has a flat tire and pulls over to fix it. Just his luck to buy a lemon. At least the car was cheap, and he needed to save money for the trip.

Back to the romance...the meal has been great and the couple lingers over drinks with amazing conversation and flirty touches. By now she's wondering if he'll ask for another date. She could stare at those thick blue eyes all night long, but doesn't want to seem easy. Then she realizes she never assessed if he was married. She's been used before, and hated that she was the "other woman". She excuses herself to the restroom and pulls out her iPod to do a quick search.

Back to the guy with the bomb. He’s back on the road, turning up the radio and singing along to Elton John as he enters the freeway. It starts to rain buckets, plunging traffic to a forced crawl.

On to the lovers... She's back at the table, having found him single on Facebook, and ready to ask for the next date herself. But then he gets a phone call that makes his eyebrows slap together and he rushes out of the restaurant.

The guy with the bomb is on the bridge now. His car rolls to a complete stop. But not because of traffic. He rolls to the shoulder. Actually, he shoulders the car onto the shoulder. Then sets the brake and locks it before grabbing the gas canister from the trunk and heading off to find the nearest gas station.

Meanwhile, the woman has caught up to her date, who's finishing an argument on the phone in front of the restaurant. The last thing she hears is "Just get to the gas station and I'll pick you up."


Back to reality.... Plot is the bomb: the movement or change that your brain couldn’t stop tracking. And yet plot’s more than the bomb. It's the larger story occurring—that the date and the bomb might have someone in common.

Plot occurs beyond the micro details and intimate moments between characters. But if all you have are those intimate moments and details and ever-so-clever descriptions, and no bomb, then you have a story that will never really ignite the reader's interest.

So go forth and blow their minds, Angels!
Your Editor Devil

And if all else fails, watch this Kurt Vonnegut video on the universal plot and you won't stop laughing:

When to Stop Editing

One lesson I've had to learn the hard way, but I warn students about all the time, is that over-editing is worse than not editing at all.

Tightening is good and healthy, and it usually involves dropping the fluff words and moving toward more powerful verbs and nouns. But when I kept editing for word count, dropping and dropping every word I could find that wasn't critical, I lost both flavor and breath to the work. Lesson learned the hard way!

So, how do you know when you've over-edited. When it sounds mechanical. When the spirit is low or void. When the USC band could tap out a marching tune to your sentence rhythm. Sometimes it's better to lose a sentence, or even a paragraph, than to over-tighten every sentence on the page.

Another pressure you might befall to is over-edit for pacing. Now, I love a quick story that gets my heart jumping. But you cannot maintain that break-neck speed every paragraph of every page. You have to let the reader breath, so again let your phrasings have some down time, slowing the pacing so there's a few extra heartbeats between words.

Reading your work out loud doesn't always produce the best edits, but it will help you identify when your work is too tight, too strained, too fast, or just too brittle.

And, if you made the same mistake I did and over-edited your work, the cure is to go back to a blank page and write the work from memory. Maybe that sounds too hard, but even just a few pages from memory here and there, or even a few sentences, and you'll find that natural voice again.

Good luck and good writing, Angels!
Your Editor Devil

Rattle the Reader's Cage Early

First impressions count in this world, however unfair we may feel about it. Just ask agents and editors, who look at those first lines and decide if they will keep reading or not.

Most folks think the beginning of a story starts with the first page of Chapter One, because that’s where the book starts. The real answer is: not always.

Find Your True Starting Line
Often the beginning of the story and the beginning of the book are two different locations.

Trust me, agents and editors know the difference. (This is a good reason to have beta readers and critique groups.) It’s a complaint I’ve been hearing for years from agents and editors: “the book starts in the wrong place.” They may even put down a manuscript after the first page. They are not interested in waiting till page three or five or 10 for the story (read "energy" or "momentum" or "tension") to get going. Rattle the reader’s cage early!

Many studies have been performed on readers at bookstores who pick up a book and review the first few pages, then either put it back down, or carry it to the checkout line. So don’t underestimate the power of your beginning when it comes to selling your work— it’s your first impression!

Cut Out the Fluff
Many newbie writers start a story too late or too early. Professional authors start their stories with key elements in mind:

  1. Which key scene sets the ball rolling toward climatic action by Act 2,
  2. What angle/style is the most effective way to engage the reader, and
  3. Who starts the story and why.

In other words, good storytellers start with something impending or life altering and, typically, the character most affected by it.

So how can you identify when your story really starts? That’s complicated. Let’s use an example...

Jump into Live Action
True crime and thriller author, Anthony Flacco, gave an example at a conference about a writer he’d advised. The man was starting his book with a trial scene with the lawyer making his opening arguments about a murder. Basically, the main character was summarizing the heart of the story. A story he was not present to experience. In other words, he's telling, not showing.

Flacco had advised the author to start with the scene where the crime was actually happening. “Get us involved in the gritty action,” he told the man.

Flacco’s reasoning was that by the time the trial occurs, all the critical events and heat of the story have passed. The fire literally has been burned out. It’s harder for the reader to start with a stale scene of testimony—the speaking about what happened in the past (i.e. passive events), than to be thrown into gripping action scenes.

By doing the later, the reader can care about the victim, hope that the villain gets caught, and desire justice to be done. All because the reader went through the trauma themselves, so they salivate for a juicy trial scene that nails the bad guy. That's a great start.

So go forth and rattle the cage, my fellow authors!
Your Editor Devil.

RE-POST: Hook vs. Heart in Story Openers


Many students in my recent Create Characters That Last! class asked me about introducing a main character in the first scene of the book and what was required to make the intro powerful.

Well, besides the necessary scene details--setting/location, time (at least night or day, future/past or present) and POV--we should get a physical and emotional glimpse of the main character. A few details will suffice.

Sketch details set in context work great, such as "she wore a short-brimmed hat over her straw hair and wide-toe flats beneath her pantsuit, so she looked more like a grumpy clown than the corporate attorney come to rattle our CEO's cage." That gives us enough physical elements to latch onto the woman while giving purpose and characterization to her presence.

But most of all we need a hook and a heart to the story. Just one or two lines to tell us her unique dilemma (hook) and why we should care (heart). Maybe even tell us what she’s after (goal). Most classes and books teach you to include the hook on page one, but they never mention including a heart. Or what I call the heart they call the character goal (either internal or external).

But I say the heart advises these goals and lays the foundation for the reader’s emotional attachment. In fact, the heart is the only reason to care whether the character achieves any of their goals. Heart gives humanity to the book. And humanity, not the cleverness of a hook, endears the reader to the story. It gives readers emotional entrance not just mental entanglement.

Again, a hook is some unique character situation or problem that intrigues us, while a heart is something about that character’s plight or their situation that warms us and make us empathize with them. Because the modern reader won't wait till page 20 to get emotionally hooked into your story, you need to deliver hook and heart early. Agents and editors know this, and they want that meat on page one.

One of my students wrote a story with a woman arriving in a remote airport who finds she has no rental car. She's stuck. That's the crux of the first scene. I advised the author to layer in a hook and a heart and see how that transforms the character and her plight enough to propel a whole story. Otherwise, the scene's just a cranky woman stuck in an airport. Not a story builder.

Now, a woman having the best day of her life who finds out she's stuck at a remote airport in a third-world country with an orphan she just adopted, a child who needs a heart medication refilled ASAP... that’s a hook. And let’s say this woman is one of those Doctor Without Borders nurse volunteers who helps kids get surgeries. And let’s say that she’s been waiting to adopt since she discovered ten years ago that she can't have children, which broke up her first marriage. That's a woman we care about, a woman who deserves a little happiness of her own and we want to cheer her toward that goal. That’s a heart. Get it?

On Hooks & Crooks

The Whidbey Island Writers Conference is small and intimate. Just the place to get all your questions answered and pitch agents/editors without pressure. Or just socialize and take classes, which is what I did. So nice to be the student once in a while, and I got the lovely opportunity to work with Mary Buckham, a great teacher, who bent my brain about hooks.

Now, as a journalist we learned to write hooks. Fast. In 5 and 3-minute timed exercises. And the subject matter was completely new to us. Talk about pressure! Then studying screenwriting, I learned to get all those hooks at both the beginning and end of chapters/scenes. For screenplays the 3rd, 5th, 10th, 20th, and 100th pages demand turns and hooks too.


But Mary pressed me to create multiple hooks in one line ON PURPOSE. It's not that I've never created multiple questions for the reader in one line, but doing it on purpose, and knowing how they break down, was really empowering.

Using Donald Maass' theories of the various types of hooks (from "Writing the Breakout Novel"), she helped us combine many into our opening lines. Here's Maass’ list of hooks (but you should buy his book to understand how these play out and to see his examples):

* Action or danger
* Overpowering emotion
* A surprising situation
* An evocative description that pulls a reader into a setting
* Introducing a unique character
* Warning or foreshadowing
* Setting a tone or theme
* Shocking or witty/clever dialogue [internal or external]
* The totally unexpected
* Raising a direct question
[list excerpted from Donald Maass’ "Writing the Breakout Novel"]


So try choosing 3 of these. Or 5, or 7... see how many you can create in one line. For example:

“He buried the money, the jewels, and the girl in the same spot so that when he returned ten years from now, he’d only have to dig one damn hole next time.”

Can we say creepy!!! But this one opening line introduces a unique character, a surprising situation, foreshadowing of ten years from now, a shocking kind of internal dialogue, and the totally unexpected. But more than these, it raises multiple direct questions: what happened to the girl, and why did he dig more than one hole this time (and who’s in it the other one)?

That’s 6 in one line! In an industry with so much competition, less is not more. More wins contracts.

Go forth and do damage, Angels.
Your Editor Devil

Using Scenes to "Show, Not Tell"

One of the benefits of screenplay writing is that it forces the author to focus on Dialogue and Action, the two critical aspects of the "show, don't tell" theory. This winning formula in screenwriting is also good for writing book scenes.

NO Prattling Allowed
In screenwriting, Dialogue IS Action. In other words, what people say in a scene should move the story forward. Such as conveying information that leads to the villains capture, sharing secrets that lead to fights or kisses, giving directions and orders to troops, even expressing emotion or humor with another character to build a relationship. Useless prattling takes up film and crew time, which is expensive, so it’s cut. Spoken words should move people, move objects, move the reader to understanding what's going on in the story.

Now, Action is more obviously, well, active. But many authors forget to ebb and flow Action appropriately. Worse, they fill the page with completely boring, stilted, or meaningless activities. You must choose which action appropriately shows the story unfolding while being conscious of pacing and intensity to give the reader variety.

Make Action Count
In screenwriting, the only action left on the page is Action that is CRITICAL to the story. Movies typically don’t allow actors to just stand around in a scene--a good script accounts for every moment with just enough action to keep tension going. Like a guy fighting with his wife while trying to make eggs for the 3 kids. Who want the eggs 3 different ways. That's Action that layers tension. It shows struggle, frustration, building odds against him. Again, the action shows, not tells. So the actor doesn’t have to tell “I’m frustrated and feeling overwhelmed” in dialogue (internal or external).

Apply Setting & Description Judiciously
Now, Setting and Description in a scene are important, but they typically are not active. They impress, not move. So, they have their place in creating mood, metaphor, impact of scale (mountains vs. marbles), etc. They offer a place for Action and Dialogue to occur and objects that may contribute to the Action. In other words, if they don’t help the action and dialogue show the story, then they have no place in the scene. Always weigh them against the story according to their appropriate role and importance.

Granted, some movies use Setting as a Character, giving it waaaaaaay more time and intensity on the screen. That's a whole other art form. If you are writing this way, such as in gothic stories or alien worlds, good for you. But you have to make the Setting active. It has to move, have a pulse, cause trouble, cure people. Whatever. It has to act like a Character to be as important a Character.

Let World-Building Intensify Action & Tension
Stories wherein world-building is critical can use Setting and Description to intensify Action. Again, showing, not telling is key here, so using long passages of detailed Settings and Descriptions will plummet pacing. Be sure to incorporate these details within the Action and Dialogue and you will keep your story moving forward.

Good luck, Angels.
Your Editor Devil