Plain, Ordinary, or Beautiful?

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Once I made the mistake of creating a heroine who wasn’t loveable because she didn’t forgive until the end of the story. Although her black and white thinking was true to character in her particular setting, it made her unappealing to the modern, more open-minded reader. Some who couldn’t relate blasted her in reviews.

Observation: Characters can be too realistic.

While she needs to stay true to her personality type, a good heroine breaks out of the norm for her particular setting from the get-go.

Because writing is a creative process, the rules are loose to allow us to create a unique voice. It’s a painful process to learn what works through our failures. After a dozen novels, workshops, and self-help studying, I still blunder my way along. At the end of each novel, I find myself vowing, Wow, I’ll never do that again. No more prologues for me—but that’s a topic for another day.

Under deadline, I write and juggle life. But between contracts, I study, plot, fret, and find more time to doubt myself. As you might have guessed, I’m currently developing characters. While fretting over my next heroine, I asked myself, what would help her connect with readers on page one and throughout my manuscript? This thinking led to another observation. Let me explain.

Growing up as a Mennonite, I call myself a plain-vain gal.

I was raised on humble pie and continue to strive for humility. But you know how it goes when somebody says you can’t have something. So if I’m honest, I have a craving for beauty and admiration. When I read, I enjoy living-escaping through beautiful, gutsy heroines. Most of my heroines have been lovely on the outside.

But since I’m wallowing in character fret-mode, I polled my Facebook followers with the following question:

Do you prefer a beautiful heroine or a plain one?

Every single response was plain, except for a few who didn’t care. Really? I expected the comments about inner beauty, but I was shocked they demanded plain on the outside. I expected mixed preferences.

For sure, they want a heroine who overcomes the ordinary. I’m still processing this information so I ask you…

…Is inner beauty or character strength more visible on a plain heroine?

As an example, Katharine Hepburn comes to mind, and I did a follow up blog post about using her as a character on plain girl romanticizing.

I’m conforming to my followers’ preference. Like most authors, I cut photos for each character and study them as I write. Here’s the plain-Jane photo I’ve chose for my WIP.

heroine 2

She’s really growing on me. I’m convinced I’ll make her shine. And hopefully make her smile too.

All of my responses were from women. I wonder: men, would you respond differently? But as a romance author, I’m writing for women. Or was this a genre thing (Amish readers ages 34-55)? Would it have been different for younger readers?

And what about our heroes? In secular romance novels, heroes are often dark and brooding with wicked pasts. It’s up to the heroine to bring out the good and change him. In Christian novels, the growth is often attributed to God. But what kind of heroes are Christian women seeking? Have you done any polls?

From my own experience, my favorite hero was my last one. He was ordinary looking. On a scale of one to ten, he started below zero with the heroine who remembered him as gawky and pesky from college. I developed his inner strength and found myself drawn to him more than my good looking heroes.

On book covers, publishers often hide the heroine’s face. But writers must describe character attributes.

So what do you think? Does it really matter how they look?

Or is it all about the writing?

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Hello, Fellow Publishers!

I’m a publisher.

I thought I was just an author doing some social marketing, but thanks to what I’m learning from Beth Hayden’s book Pinfluence: The Complete Guide to Marketing Your Business with Pinterest, my whole perspective on my writing career is changing. Yes, I write mystery and suspense novels, but in support of that endeavor, I need to be creating and presenting content online that is meaningful and valuable for my customers. I need to give my social media friends and visitors what they are looking for, or as Hayden explains on page 61 of her book, “You need to make sure that every piece of content you publish either solves a problem for your audiences, or entertains them – preferably both.”

That’s a big responsibility. Every piece of content. We’re talking about images, information, links, comments – anything you publish anywhere on the internet that has to do with your writing. It’s all part of your ‘company.’ The really exciting part of using Pinterest as part of your company is that it allows you to get creative with visual content, which, psychologists tell us, can evoke emotional responses in a viewer. The bottom line is that by publishing the right images, you can build enthusiasm and loyalty in your viewers, which will help sell your product (books).

Culling through whatever is already on Pinterest boards, however, is not the way to find the ‘right’ images for your viewers, Hayden points out, just as consistently using someone else’s words doesn’t make your work original. Instead, put together your own content. That doesn’t mean you have to take a hundred photos or hire a graphic artist. It means you have to collect compelling images that represent your unique brand. (Be very careful of image copyrights.)

Do you write historical romance? Pin beautiful images of the places where you set your stories, or sketches of period clothing, or the flowers of the region – anything that helps your reader connect to your book. Think of it as publishing a behind-the-scenes guide to your story.

Do you write motivational memoirs? You could pin pictures of famous people who have overcome hardship, or framed inspirational quotes, or maps that trace incredible journeys. Think of it as pulling together an illustrated companion piece to your book.

The possibilities are limited only by your time and imagination, but if you keep focused on your ‘company,’ it will help eliminate some of the time-draining wandering we all do when we get online; if you’re collecting images of old barnyards for an Amish board, it will be a lot easier to not get distracted by all those cute animal pictures that pop up in the blogosphere. (If all else fails, put a sticky note on your computer screen that reminds you “No puppies!”) Make your publishing goals as specific as possible, pin appealing and evocative images on your boards, and Pinterest can become a great billboard for your books on the global internet highway.

Enjoy your publishing!

What are some examples of images that you have been pinning lately? Do you have any creative ideas for pins besides those I mentioned above?

Making Eye Contact

I survived the hottest recorded day in Phoenix—122 degrees, June of 1990.

Slogan tee-shirts celebrated our feat of endurance and brought camaraderie to Phoenicians. Strangers on the street—If we were crazy enough to be outside that particular June—shook heads and bonded without muttering a word. Normally in metropolitan Phoenix, people don’t make eye contact with strangers. But survivors bond.

 On writing island, the heat’s rising and the competition’s growing.

Passivity kills. We must seize all survival tools to inhabit, flourish, and keep our cool. There’s a handy item in the writer’s backpack that can catch the eye of tribal leaders.

A Killer Book Proposal!

I hear your groans. I groaned when the mercury hit 122.

But book proposals create eye contact with your agent or editor.

If you need a format, here’s a simplified version of the one from my backpack.

Title Page  – Title, author’s name, and literary agent’s contact information.

Proposal Overview  – This vital area creates initial eye contact. It’s the premise for a book or series. Be precise. 1-2 sentences for each book.

Synopsis – Deepen interest. About three pages of story summary (My most recent included a twist and a takeaway) After that, do a ¾ page synopsis for each sequel. Note how the books tie together. (For nonfiction proposals, this area contains chapter outline and short summaries)

Manuscript Details – Word count and date when the finished manuscripts can be available (First time authors need to have the manuscript completed)

Author’s Uniqueness – One page. Includes education, credentials, awards, and personal experiences which relate to your book, your writing style as compared to others, and genre. If you’re published, bring in quotes and snippets of reviews to describe your writing.

Marketing – Bullet style, brainstorm what will sell the book. If you write romance, are there some romantic elements that will appeal to readers? Mention them. Tell what you’re already doing to promote your platform or books. Explain what you’re willing to do. List your website and blog links. Talk about your social media outreach. List memberships and organizations.

Affinity Groups – Research what specific groups of people will read your book. If you have previous works, this is easier. You can even use Facebook or website tracking to pinpoint the age of followers. Being specific helps editors promote your idea to an acquisitions committee.

Books Under Contract (or) Previous Works– Before I had books published, I listed magazine articles and plays. In my last proposal, I only listed a series under contract because it gave a fresh representation of my readership. Include sales in units and earnings. You can get this from your agent or royalty statements.

Author Bio – Mine is about 1/2 page, with professional credentials and some personal information.

First Three ChaptersThese significant chapters allow your person of interest to look deep into your writing soul. Shine and represent your style.

On each page, a header contains the book’s title and author’s name. Single space the proposal and use 1½ spacing for sample chapters and between headings. My numbered pages usually run about 35 pages total, including sample chapters. Also, write a short summary, about 1-3 paragraphs, to accompany the cover letter or your agent’s email to publishers.

To survive writers’ island, proposals can’t be rushed. Make the most of the opportunity to create eye-contact. My format contains years of personal tweaking, but you’ll want to embellish whatever format you use with your own creativity and style.

Unlike television’s Survivor cast, the Watercooler’s a safe place for interaction.

What’s your spin on book proposals?

And just for fun . . . what’s the temp at your place?

Top 5 Self-Editing Tips: Structure

Writing is rewriting, and rewriting is self-editing. “But isn’t that the job of the editor after I’ve made the sale?” No. Some writers think running spell-checker is self-editing. Not so much.

“But won’t rewriting my work edit the life out of it?” No, but it will catch the eye of an agent or editor as a well-written manuscript and may lead to a sale.

Obsessive editing during the writing process will destroy your work. However, after you’ve written the first draft, gain some distance and perspective on your manuscript by setting it aside for a few weeks or a couple of months. Now it’s time to rewrite.

Here are my top 5 self-editing tips in their order of importance for polishing your work to a high sheen.

  1. Structure: Think of the structure of your work as an arched bridge spanning a great river. If the contractor takes short cuts (such as using less cement, steel, or fewer bolts) because she’s bored with the process and rushes to the end, the bridge is weakened and will collapse.  The same holds true for both ends of the bridge. If too much cement is used at either end of the bridge, it will collapse from the added weight.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll concentrate on the structure of novels. If the structure of your story is solid, the reader will continue to turn the pages until the ending scene.

The material of the structure is comprised of the elements of the story arc (the basic story thread) held in place by a beginning, middle, and end. Pretty simplistic, huh? Yet the three-act structure has worked since Aristotle’s days whether you write plays, scripts, short stories, or novels.

Sydney Harbor Bridge

Some authors maintain they have a four-, five-, six-, or even eight-act structure. I maintain if you break down the parts of their story arcs, you will discover classic Aristotelian structure.

Using the bridge analogy, a car drives onto the bridge. This is the point in the novel when you can lose a reader in the first page or two. I’ve thrown many a book (or manuscript) on the pile beside my bed if nothing happens right away. The author might as well have written “blah, blah, blah-blah, blah.”

A novel that piques the reader’s interest starts as far into the story as possible. I don’t want to know that the protagonist’s parents left him stranded in a snowstorm when he was a toddler and that’s why he’s terrified of snow (or abandonment). That’s back story. The story should begin with stasis (a state of equilibrium) and then the main character, pressed with conflict, reveals her goal.

One of my favorite movies is Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. The story throws you into the action, and the back story―Indy’s character, profession, the setting, and the antagonist―are revealed as Act 1 plays out.

As the story progresses into the middle (Act 2) and the bulk of the novel, you should have rising and falling tension as your protagonist encounters numerous obstacles or crises.

The main turning point, or big surprise, comes in the middle of the novel. By this time the reader believes he has the story figured out. You need to turn his assumptions on their head. The major turning point should be such a shock that no one sees it coming. It should keep your reader up at night turning pages.

The crises continue. Will he? Won’t she? Oh, no! What will happen to this character your reader has invested her time in? Will everything turn out all right? How will the story ever end on a happy, satisfying note now?

Tension mounts and we reach another major turning point before we head into the final third act. Every turning point should be a surprise to the reader.

The crises are unrelenting until we reach the climax halfway through the third act. The protagonist faces off against the antagonist. The clash of the titans ensues. A woman faces her attacker or her paralyzing fear. The antagonist is not always a person. A man pushes his wife out of the path of a stampeding herd of cattle. Will he live? You get the picture.

Tie up all the loose ends of your storyline in the denouement―the final resolution of the plot or story arc. Is your ending satisfying? Does the main character live happily ever after? If you live and write in America, trust me, she better if you want to succeed as a professional author. Americans are eternal optimists.

To be continued…

How will you self-edit your novel to make sure your structure is strong enough to carry your storyline through to the end?

Photo credit: Sydney Harbour Bridge with the Opera House in the background by Ian.

Interview with W. Dale Cramer Concludes, Part 4

(see Parts ONE, TWO & THREE)

CE: How much editorial input do you get from your publisher, and how do you like working with a publishing house editor?

DC:  All my books so far have been published by Bethany House, who has always put a lot of editorial work into their books. I like it. Most of my books have undergone major changes due directly to the input of editors, and I have no problem with that. To me, it’s just more sets of eyes—professional book people’s eyes, looking for ways to improve the manuscript. The writer has to get his ego out of the way and learn to see his work objectively, like a lump of clay, sparing no amount of effort to shape it into a work of art. 

Editors are book people. Not only their professional reputation, but their sense of self worth hangs from the quality of books they produce. They want the same thing you do—a good book—and they know what they’re doing. I’ve worked with the same editor on all my books, and it’s been a pleasure. Luke Hinrichs is intelligent, perceptive, articulate, and good-looking (not to mention that he sometimes reads these blogs, if you get my drift.)

CE: What is one critical thing you’ve learned not to do on the publishing journey? (Some of us admit without shame that we prefer to learn from others’ mistakes.

DC: I prefer learning from my own mistakes, but then I don’t mind the scars. What have I learned not to do? Complain. If you absolutely must complain, complain to your agent privately. That’s what she’s there for. You will have complaints, but don’t complain to the publisher, and never, ever complain on the internet. Nothing good will come of it, and you’ll look like a whiner.

CE: Great advice. You’ve just completed a three book series. This is probably the last thing you want to think about right now, but what’s next?

DC:  I have no clue. Isn’t that great? Right now I’m taking time off, doing a lot of electrical work, and enjoying it.

CE: Any last words of advice for the serious, yet-to-be-published writer?

DC:  You have to learn to take the work seriously without taking yourself too seriously. Construction work taught me that it takes a lot of different skills to build a solid house. Take pride in your work, not in yourself, and when it’s done, move on to the next one.

CE: Thank you so much for taking to time to share your thoughts with us this week, Dale. Blessings on all your writing & publishing endeavors!

About Dale: Dale Cramer is the author of six novels including the bestselling and critically acclaimed Levi’s Will, based on the story of Dale’s father, a runaway Amishman. Dale’s latest series, THE DAUGHTERS OF CALEB BENDER is based on an Amish colony in the mountains of Mexico where three generations of his family lived in the 1920s. He currently lives in Georgia with his wife of 36 years, two sons and a Bernese Mountain Dog named Rupert. Visit him on his Web site at http://www.dalecramer.com/

About The Captive Heart (The Daughters of Caleb Bender #2)

Ravaged by disease, preyed upon by ruthless bandits, the Bender family’s second year in Mexico has taken a grievous turn. Faced with impossible choices, the expatriate Amish discover, more than ever before, what it means to live by faith and not by sight

But it’s Miriam who must make the hardest choice as her heart takes her on a new and dangerous course. Domingo. “He is gentle,” his sister said, “until someone he loves is threatened.” Is Miriam that someone?

“Cualnezqui,” he often calls her–the Nahuatl word for Beautiful one. The chiseled native has proven himself a man of principle, grace and power, yet is he the pearl of great price for whom Miriam would sacrifice everything, or is he merely a friend? Tormented by conflicting emotions, she’s haunted by vivid dreams: Dressed in the coarse cotton pants and shirt of a peasant, she stands on the precipice of a sun-washed ridge searching desperately for Domingo. Domingo the fierce. Domingo the protector.

Domingo the forbidden.

Camille’s review of The Captive Heart, is available HERE

Interview with W. Dale Cramer Continues, Part 3

(see Part ONE & TWO)

CE: You’ve said in past interviews that you’re a SOTP (Seat Of The Pants) writer. Has your aversion to plotting and outlines changed at all since you’ve worked on a three-book series?

DC:  It’s not so much an aversion as an inability. I can’t outline. Most of the time I have a sort of vague sense of the overall character arc, a general idea of where I want to arrive in the end, and some of the anecdotal material I’d like to use if and when it fits, but the motivations that get characters from one chapter to the next come from the characters themselves. I can usually find things for them to do that sort of steer them in the direction I’d like them to go, but the characters simply won’t do it if the motivation isn’t there.

I’ve heard it said that writing a book is like driving at night; you can only see so far, but you can make the whole trip that way. Some people are only comfortable when the whole trip is mapped out in detail, and to be honest I’m sure they make fewer wrong turns than I do. Sometimes I get stuck and have to turn around, which costs me time, but I’m also aware that the really breathtaking moments in stories are the unexpected turns. For instance, a writer has to be willing to make room for a walk-on. In every book I’ve written I’ve had at least one character walk onto the stage completely unforeseen. Those invariably turn out to be the most interesting characters, like Domingo in Paradise Valley. He showed up on his own, constantly surprising me with the things he did and said. If a character surprises the writer you can be fairly sure he’ll surprise the reader.

CE: In writing this series, how did you approach weaving the daughters’ shorter storylines in each book in with the father’s overarching series storyline? (Please don’t say it just fell together. Lie if you must.)

DC:  I was concerned about that very thing, so I asked advice from a little guy on the stool next to me in a bar in Darjeeling (long story), four years ago. Turned out he was the great nephew of Tenzing Norgay, and he took me to a wizened old guru in a sacred cave high in the Himalayas. After seven hours of kneeling and chanting I was finally allowed to put my question to the guru, and he answered in a frail, high-pitched voice, “You must have faith, my son. Wing it, and it will fall together.”

 CE: Um, I’m going out on a limb and guessing you went with the lie. Thank you for sharing and for confirming my suspicions.

Back to Summer of Light: There’s a scene that made me drop the book and laugh out loud—Mick with the chainsaw on Aubrey’s front lawn. You built that moment up beautifully. You’re a master of wry humor. How do you incorporate it in a novel? Would you say it begins with being an SOTPer?

DC:  No, I think it begins with being Southern. I really hate to admit this, but here’s the truth: almost all of the really funny stuff actually happened. I got the chainsaw story from a lunatic cousin; I could never have made that up. Or the pretend cigars, for that matter. Or the goat in the house. Or the dog in the tree house. Listen, if you don’t howl with laughter at least once a day, either you’re wound too tight or you’re not paying attention. Absurdities swarm around us like gnats. For a writer, the real trick is in knowing when and how to use one of those stories.

CE: What has been your biggest challenge or roadblock in writing, and how did you overcome it?

DC:  My biggest roadblock is the same as everyone else’s—myself. It’s hard to convince yourself you can write well, that you can write a book, that you can find an agent, that you can actually get a contract with a publisher, that you won’t be humiliated by critics or shunned by readers. Leaps of faith, all of them, with conflicting advice shouted from the sidelines the whole way, and self-doubt nipping at your heels. Ignore them all and leap anyway. Never mind the scars.

CE: How much editorial input do you get from your publisher, and how do you like working with a publishing house editor?

(for the answer to this and the rest of the interview, come back tomorrow for Part 4)

Interview with W. Dale Cramer Continues, Part 2

(see Part 1 HERE)

CE: Has writing this series affected your relationship with your Amish relatives? How have they reacted to these stories?

DC:  They were reticent at first. The Amish are a very private people, and there were things in Levi’s Will that they’d rather I hadn’t said. But in the end the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and now the whole clan turns out for the booksignings in Berlin. My Aunt Mary, a staunch Old Order Amish woman to this day, has been heard to say several times over the last year that she couldn’t wait for The Captive Heart  to come out so she could find out what happens to Miriam and Domingo.

CE: What do you value most about the Amish people and their way of life?

DC:  Oddly enough, I think it’s that their churches meet in homes and barns; they don’t own property or support a paid staff. This means nearly all their tithes go toward taking care of people’s needs. The elderly don’t have to fret over a retirement plan, and the Amish take seriously the biblical mandate to care for widows and orphans. A budget meeting in an Amish church usually goes something like, “We have a big surplus of money just sitting there. Does anyone know of a family in our community who really needs help?” Don’t get me wrong—they have their problems—but the deeper I look at the Amish the more I find myself marveling at the things they get right.

CE: How did you create the characters in this series, particularly the daughters? Writers and readers would like to know: Did you get female input in writing your female protagonists?

DC:  Absolutely. Because I spent most of my life doing construction work, I know everything there is to know about men, and virtually nothing about women. The CBA is a woman’s world, so when I started the series I thought it was important for the Bender family to have lots of girls and lots of female viewpoints. I knew I was in trouble right away, so I solicited my wife’s help. For the first time in my writing career I printed out each chapter as soon as the last word was typed, and handed it to Pam. She’d sit there with that little smirk, her eyes at half mast (whenever they weren’t rolling), shaking her head, muttering, “no… no… no…”. Then we’d talk, and I’d rewrite it. When the entire draft was done I showed it to my cousin Katie, whereupon I learned that an Amish girl has yet another perspective on it. It was sort of a committee effort, but in the end I think we got it right. Trust your instincts, but don’t be afraid to take good advice wherever you can find it. The magic is in the rewriting.

On Writing & Publishing:

CE: Many of your novels include elements taken from personal experience. Tell us a little about how an experience goes from a spark or seed to a full length novel.

DC:  Every writer is different, but I guess my second novel is the best example of how that happens, at least with me. First of all, the idea for Bad Ground  tumbled around in my head for years before I wrote a word. I once worked on a mining project where I learned about the whole subculture of miners first-hand. We were a mile and a half underground one night when I was burned nearly to death in an electrical explosion, and the aftermath turned out to be the best and most enlightening period of my life. It changed absolutely everything, opening up a world of spirituality that made perfect sense. I learned from experience that it’s a good idea to pay close attention during the worst times of your life because that’s where God puts the good stuff. I knew before I started that this would be the theme of Bad Ground, so I knew what I wanted the story to say, and I knew the backdrop would be the mining project. The characters and their stories sort of coalesced out of fragments of miners and construction workers I’ve known, and the lies we’ve swapped all these years. Once I had a handle on Snake and Germy all I had to do was follow them around and write down what they did. The characters, if you’ll trust them, will help you get where you want to go.

CE: Excellent advice. You’ve said in past interviews that you’re a SOTP (Seat Of The Pants) writer. Has your aversion to plotting and outlines changed at all since you’ve worked on a three-book series?

(for the answer to this and more of the interview, come back tomorrow for Part 3)