Category Archives: protagonist

But wait …!

This is the TVholic’s strategy for sagging middles

Hi everyone. Thea here today, but really, as you read this, I’ll be in KC at the RT Booklovers’ Convention and not in my usual position, rooted at the end of the couch, with tv on and WIP at the ready. So forgive me if I’m not posting an immediate response. (Full report on the conference to come, of course.)

So I want to talk about sagging middles — the kind you delete with a key stroke (oh, if only — ). I’ve said during workshops that “what if” is your single most powerful writing tool. Anything can happen in “what if.” It’s no-commitment plotting. It frees your mind. You can let go, make lists, let them take you to the most improbable plot places.

But wait …! It would be even more productive if at the moment when the plot seems to be chugging along, you stop yourself with those words. But wait …! The juicy incentive used by telemarketers to make you buy (can you tell I watch too much tv?). But wait — maybe your reader isn’t buying a smooth, unfurrowed plotline. Maybe your reader is waiting for something juicy to happen.

But wait …! What if your characters are afraid of losing something? (Love, fame, fortune, respect, family secrets, inheritance, friendship …) Make them lose it. Ask what lengths they’ll go to to get it back. What they’re willing to risk.

Because the more they risk, the more that stands in their way, the more conflict, the greater desire they’ll have (at greater cost) to reach their goal, and so, the richer the plot.

In the simplest terms: Get them in trouble and keep them in trouble. Keep throwing in obstacles, complications, repercussions and don’t let up.

But wait …! What if you don’t know exactly where the plot is going?

Write the NYTimes log-line. That hones it down nicely to two or three lines: Danny Jones has everything he wants, until a secret from his past threatens everything.

Or write the cover copy. That will focus you on the set-up, conflict, and what drives the plot.

But wait …! What if it’s still not working?

Make the problem personal and current. Someone is out to destroy Danny Jones and make sure he never is elected to anything.

Give the protagonist two villains and a moral choice. A childhood friend and his own brother are separately threatening Danny Jones. No matter what decision he makes, he will lose everything, including his friend and his brother.

Up the ante. Not only does a secret from his past
threaten Danny Jones personally, but also his burgeoning political career, his marriage, and his inheritance from a famous relative which comes along with a list of moral stipulations he may not be able to meet.

Add suspense by turning “what if” into “if only.” What could his enemy have against him? If only, all those years ago, he hadn’t — but then there was this other moment when — But nobody knew about that, did they?

Give your protagonist a moral dilemma that forces her to compromise either her beliefs or her values. If Danny Jones is up front about his past, then he will never ever be able to run for office, he’ll lose the love of his life, the inheritance from his famous relative, and he’ll never be able to see his children again.

Try reversing things. Make the hero the heroine and vice versa. Danny is Danielle, a powerful CEO who is courting politics and who has a secret she thought was buried deep in the past. Lovers? Liars? Friends? Family? Who is plotting to betray her?

Keep the reader guessing. For Danielle any of those people associated with her could be her enemy; any one of them can say or do something that would lead her to believe she is on the verge of losing everything. She has too much at stake. She has to be careful not to rock the boat. What is she going to do? (I love this; I think it works even better!)

But wait …!

But I can’t. I have to go. But you can. What juicy incentives would you add to the list to entice your readers to keep reading?

Thea Devine is currently working on a new erotic contemporary romance, and enjoying the release of five of her backlist titles, Reckless Desire, Ecstasy’s Hostage, Relentless Passion, Montana Mistress and Angel Eyes in Kindle editions.

Do You Remember…?

Do you remember all your plots? I mean, if you had a backlist that dated from the mid-80′s, would you remember every character, every storyline?

Several years ago at an RWA conference, I was talking with a reader who in the course of conversation told me that one of my books she liked best was the one with the nun. I said there was no book with a nun. She insisted. I was firm. She was certain. I held tight. No nuns.

A few months later, for no reason I can say, I picked up ANGEL EYES, the fifth of my five backlist reissues now available in Kindle eBooks, and there, in the opening chapters, Angelene, my heroine, in a bold move to escape the murderous future her mother has planned for her, disguises herself as a nun to try to make her way to her wealthy grandmother in England.

Really. I couldn’t believe I didn’t remember. I felt like an idiot, remembering my conversation with that reader. How could I forget a detail like that?

Since then, I’ve reread several of my backlist titles, and it was like reading someone else’s books, I was that far removed from the writing of them. They felt new, It was fun to read them, and it was interesting to see the evolution of my writing and my perspective. I kept thinking, did I really write that — then? Did I honestly get away with that scene? Those words? That many pages of foreplay and sex?

Apparently I did, and at a time when the language was much more circumspect and hard core words were tacitly not used. That my early books were reviewed as “spicy” and several years later, “erotic” is still amazing to me and a testament to how powerful everyday words can be.

These first five backlist books are all westerns.. But as I’ve written previously, my true love is antebellum romance. I wrote three of those, which are still to be released, and I’m beyond excited that these backlist titles — anyone’s backlist titles — can now have a second and longer shelf life on-line and with it, a new generation of readers.

Thea Devine is pleased to announce the following titles are now available in KIndle eBooks: Reckless Desire, Ecstasy’s Hostage, Relentless Passion, Montana Mistress and Angel Eyes. She’s currently working on an erotic contemporary romance.

Themes and Memes

Thea Devine today, watching as the snow stops, the sun comes out, and ready to jump-start some new ideas. I created this list for a workshop I gave at several Chapters (including CTRWA), and I’ve had a few new thoughts since I distributed the handouts.

Maybe you’re looking for a theme, an idea, a spine, some motivating mojo. Maybe you need a break from the WIP and want to write something just for the change (like, in my case, Not Sex). Maybe you want to play around with some bigger ideas and plot points. Maybe this list will help.

Family, faith, community: I think these themes the most important today
Anything goes vs old time values
Hedonism vs. religious stricture
Good vs evil
Something profound – like failure – shapes and changes a protagonist’s life
Loss of friends, community, job: after adversity, struggling to make a new life
Impact of separation, divorce, death
The love that could not be
Rebellion and where that leads the protagonist
Old boyfriend returns and upends everything
Consequences of sexual attack (Steubenville)
Repercussions of cavalier sex
Rags to riches: heroine spirals down and out and climbs back to a better life
An unseen lurking threat
Haunting — by ghosts real or imagined, conscience compels actions
Objects of desire: the key to a crisis in the present is in the mystery code located somewhere exotic that will save the country, the world, the planet (I love this theme)
The government is out to get us
The government is out to save us
Child in jeopardy
Impact of random violence (wrong place wrong time)
Controlled threat (stalker, serial killer)
Apocalyptic event changes life as we know it
Hero/ine against all powerful cabals that seek to dominate everything

And then …
Peripheral characters tell hitherto unknown story of a historical figure of real person –
The Other Boleyn Sister, the Tsarina’s Daughter, The Paris Wife
Ongoing characters reader falls in love with: Stephanie Plum, eg.
Exotic locations in exotic times: Wilbur Smith and Barbara Michaels, ca 1920’s Egypt; Daisy Dalrymple mysteries (1930s)
Wounded hero (like Jesse Stone) solves small town mysteries
Impact of major historical event (9/11, Columbine, Newtown)
Beloved fictional characters — like Mr & Mrs Darcy solving crimes; Jane Austen parsing out mysteries etc.
Boomer characters — the Covington novels
“clubs” — book, knitting, quilt. Jane Austen etc.
Historical mysteries — Alienist, Dante Club, Anatomy of Deception

Need some motive power? characters could be searching for family, a murderer, a lost sibling, assets, heirs, vengeance, treasure, lost love, an abandoned child, a new life, another chance.

Or they could be running from a murder charge, an ex-spouse, a stalker, toxic relationships, their childhoods, the past, responsibility, secrets (see below).

Or they could vanish. People leave for any number of reasons: they committed an opportunistic crime, were in an accident, were kidnapped, just took off, eloped, escaped an abusive situation, were running from the law, were seeking to start over, committed suicide

Maybe someone’s hiding something: someone’s secretly …

An alcoholic
An Exhibitionist
A pill addict/drug addict
A gambler
A shoplifter
An extortionist
An embezzler
Bulimic
Covets her sister’s husband
Endures physical or emotional abuse in a loveless marriage
Did bad things out of jealousy and never got caught
Got pregnant by seducing a man who resembled her husband who couldn’t have children and passed it off as his
Has an irresistible impulse to kill
Is really a bad girl when family and friends think is so good
Did something bad just to see if she could get away with it
Had a secret baby she gave away
Thought she was adopted; finds she was her mother’s natural illegitimate child

That’s it, guys. What do you think? Any ideas to add to the mix? I’d love to hear them.

Thea Devine is working on her next erotic contemporary romance — and pondering a handful of other ideas.

The Unlocked Secret of the Niche Market.

So what is Niche Marketing? Wickepedia says, “A niche market is the subset of the market on which a specific product is focusing.” Really, Wickie? Who wrote that? Is that the best you’ve got? Of course they go on to explain further with words like demographics, market shares, and some other marketing terms and examples that didn’t do much to help me figure out how to define where my books might land on the book shelves.

The first question a professional marketer asks is, “Who is your target audience?” Truly understanding this question is probably the number one best marketing tool a writer can have. We’d all like to say, “everyone, of course.” And while that may be sort of true that many different demographics might enjoy your book, it’s more likely and infinitely easier to reach a smaller group of readers specifically interested in your genre, subject matter, and characters. Think “low lying fruit.”

Targeting “your” readers may be easier if your book falls into a specific genre. If you’ve written a cozy mystery about a librarian who is a quilter turned amateur sleuth, you might consider marketing your book to librarians and quilters, a pretty small “niche” market that might be easier than trying to reach “everyone.” This is why agents and editors want to know what “genre” you are writing. So they can determine the marketability of your book based on their experience with that particular readership and their understanding of where the market is currently trending. Women 30-55 years old are the greatest book-buying demographic that marketers are competing for. Publishing houses are trying to meet that supply. So sending a query for your “Sci-fi/ Historical, Inspirational/ Regency might be a tough sell.

The problem for many authors is that our stories don’t always fall into one genre. Diana Gabaldon had difficulty getting OUTLANDER published at first because she couldn’t clearly define it as a romance, a historical, a science fiction/fantasy, or a time travel novel. Of course it’s all of those, but it was so fabulously written that some smarty-pants publisher decided that they would take a chance and market the book to readers across multiple genres, essentially including “everyone,” and the series took off.

It worked out well for her, but most of us aren’t so lucky. In most cases, if your book falls outside of a specific proven market, agents and editors don’t want to touch it. Most of my rejection letters a few years back were because my manuscripts didn’t “fit the market.”

Now that I’m self-publishing, I see their dilemma. When I put my books up on Amazon, BN, and Smashwords, I have to pick categories that best describe them so that they are listed where my target audience would find them (good old search engine optimization-SEO). The frustrating part is that the choices are limited to the old model of publishing and haven’t caught up with new trends. “Teen/YA fiction” refers to books with protagonists ages 14-17 and are a subcategory of “children’s fiction”. But the books coming out these days for teens are arguably for a much more mature audience, and the demographic isn’t so clear-cut. Ideally, they should be much more delineated. There should be choices that would target older teens and adults who enjoy reading about that all-important transition from teen life to adult experiences. I had no idea when I chose my categories that some sites would lump my books into “Children’s fiction” because I labeled it a YA. They aren’t likely to find a readership there!

So what’s a writer to do? Well, you can choose to write for a particular market, ie; cozy mystery, romantic suspense, thriller, or romantic comedy. This is a very viable approach and is the most likely road to becoming traditionally published if you do your research and watch what’s selling and who’s selling it, and target your agent/editor query appropriately. But if you consistently find your stories falling into “genre no-man’s land,” you can join the new age of genre-bending authors who have literally created new markets by taking risks and writing what they want to write, self-publishing, and then finding their readers by focusing on certain niche markets and using that SEO to their advantage.

Whether traditional or indie-published, when it comes time to market your books and find your readership, look at who your target audience really is. Be creative and look at it from all angles and try different approaches. If you aren’t reaching readers by promoting the book to one segment of the population, try another. My book ON THIN ICE could be marketed to ice skaters, teens who become pregnant, sufferers of eating disorders, or teens experiencing the grief of losing a parent. Over time, I can market this book to several different niche markets, keeping it relevant as long as I can keep reaching new readers and targeting new niche audiences who might not otherwise have found the book. That’s why SEO is so important. And why creating whole new genres may be the best way for your target audience to find you.

Heaven is for Heroes 72 dpi 600x900 WEBSITE USEFor instance, I’ve been promoting HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES as a “Contemporary YA Romance.” But the story deals with the tragedies of war, overcoming loss, and the determination of one seventeen year old girl to find the truth—pretty mature themes that 14-17 year-old readers wouldn’t necessarily be looking to read about. Because of the protagonist’s age, the book falls into the YA market, but our hero is a nineteen-year-old Marine Veteran struggling with a difficult recovery, which changes the demographic for this story. Because the focus of the book is a tenuous teen romance with the underlying plot of a family’s search for peace in time of war, HIFH will appeal to adult readers as well as older young adults, but listed as a YA, it may never reach those adults who might enjoy the book.

The hero’s age and the subject matter make it fit more appropriately into the New Adult genre—a relatively new niche market targeting 19-23 year-old readers previously forced to read “teen” novels or jump right into “adult” romances. This segment of readers wants more than the typical high school experience, but they may not be ready for the white-picket-fence-via-total-abandonment-to-love-and-sex that rules the adult romance world. They are looking for relatable characters faced with real life issues that they themselves might be facing; such as leaving home, going off to college, or dealing with friends coming back from war.

Filled with moments of poignant reality, hard lessons, and the angst and sexual tension of first love, HIFH combines family drama and the relationship between childhood sweethearts, Jordie Dunn and Alex Cooper, who must overcome some pretty “grown-up” obstacles to find their way to a hopefully ever after ending.In Savage Cinderella, Brinn is eighteen and Justin is twenty-three. Add the subject matter and this book clearly falls into the New Adult category rather than YA. I might have tried marketing my books as Mainstream fiction and put them up against books from authors like Nicolas Sparks and Jodi Piccoult, but that would again put me in a very large pool with some very big fish, and without publisher backing, it’s tough to swim in that pond. Literary fiction is an even tougher sell than genre fiction.

With many of today’s YA books fitting more appropriately into the New Adult category, this niche market is catching on. Entangled Publishing, St. Martin’s Press and I believe even Harlequin Teen are adding New Adult titles to their acquisitions. Publishers are finally willing to recognize that yes, college students do read for pleasure in their limited time, and that they want more of what the New YA market has to offer. There are loads of twenty-something’s looking for books that go beyond the teen dramas focused on high school but who still want stories that deal with all of those wonderful (and hideous) firsts. Many of my readers fit into this category. If I had to guess, my average reader is between 19 and 33. That’s a pretty big demographic, but by listing my books as YA, I’m potentially focusing on the wrong group of readers. I don’t want to misrepresent the books by having them listed in the “Contemporary Romance” section either, since they definitely have a younger voice and reader expectation is important to consider.

Re-branding my work might take a bit of time and effort, but if it means reaching my target audience, I owe it to my books…and my readers to give it a shot.

Have you thought about who your target audience is, and what niche markets you might be missing?

THE BOOK I HAVEN’T WRITTEN

Thea Devine today.  I’m working on a variety things, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the book I haven’t written.  We all have one of those, the one you started, wrote, rewrote, set aside, tackled again, fell into a rut long before the middle, and packed away because you knew you were absolutely going to finish it — someday.  I think mine is buried in the attic right now just because I’m itching to get my hands on it and of course, Murphy’s Law, I can’t.

I started this book back when I was working for that big multi-national advertising agency I wrote about previously.  In fact, nearly everyone in the copy department, when they weren’t working on copy, was writing a book.  I had no idea what I was doing — I was maybe twenty-three or four.  I just loved to write and the intermittent stabs I made at writing advertising copy petered into one interesting idea one of my bosses used in a tv commercial she pitched which ultimately got shot down.

So definitely not copywriter material (remember I was very young).  But a book … that was a whole other story.

There was small branch library across the street from where I worked, and there I came across a pictorial history that piqued my interest.  From that I devised a scenario with an unconventional heroine,  her male friend, a missing family member (little did I know then that I had one too), an ambitious father, a prim and proper older sister, the daughter of a family friend who comes to stay with the heroine’s family, a housekeeper with a mysterious past, a stranger in town who falls for the heroine, and the town madam.

Sounds promising, right?  I had NO idea how to write it.  I started with the heroine and her male friend on an adventure, but that seemed to go nowhere.  I wrote a prologue with the missing family member, a brother, which made more sense, but then what?  Okay, so what about the daughter of the family friend?  Or better yet, what about the interconnections between the families, and why was the old friend’s daughter even there?  Yikes.  Now I had to go back and account for that somehow, but if I did that, I’d throw some other plot points off kilter.

So — send the family friend daughter back to her father.  But then, the only ones the heroine is at odds with are her sister and her father and maybe the housekeeper.  I also had the mystery of the long-gone brother permeating everything, because the heroine wouldn’t let go of the hope he’d return someday.  Well, okay.  But what if he didn’t?

Put the mss aside for a bit.  And then — start the story with the stranger coming to town who will fall for the heroine.  How do they meet?  Should they meet?  What’s his business in town anyway?  Is he a good guy or is he dangerous? Did I really have to know all that before I started writing about it?

You bet.  And worse, as I continued flailing along, the daughter of the family friend started taking over the story. She was beautiful, greedy, outspoken — that girl could have been the heroine but that wasn’t how I envisioned the story. I wanted unconventional girl to be the heroine.  She flouted conventions.  She was at odds with her family.  She had more at stake.  Wait — what did I mean by that?  So time to put the thing down and think about it some more.

So I thought about it some more — like, oh, 40 years, and now, even though there are days I don’t think I know what I’m doing, I do think I finally know how to write this book. I think it could be pretty good.

I could be wrong.

I still haven’t found the original mss pages I wrote, but I do remember the plot points.  I’m thinking I should just start all over, divef in and see what happens. We all should start all over and see what happens.

After all, we all know how to write it now.

Do you have a book you haven’t written?  Or you want to write?  Or never want to tackle ever, even though the idea of the story haunts you?

Thea Devine is working on her next erotic contemporary romance (and peripherally the book she hasn’t written).  Her sequel to The Darkest Heart. Beyond the Night, will be a September 2013 Pocket Star release.

Dudley Do-Right and Miss Goody Two-Shoes

Katy Lee here. Last week I spoke about the annoyingly flawed Drama Queen—the character a reader wants nothing more than to reach their hands into the book and shake the tiara right off their perfectly coiffed head.

But what about the other character extreme? The protagonist who does everything right, makes perfect choices, and has no faults or weaknesses.

YUCK! Talk about a downer.

Instead of escaping into a fun and uplifting experience from our everyday lives, we get a character that makes us feel guilty for not measuring up. They can even make us feel unhappy with our lives and choices. The reader needs to see at least a bit of themselves in the character if they are going to relate to them or their plight.

Heroes who are sweet and gentle, with loads of money, and who put the men in GQ to shame sound great, but without a wounded soul, or a vendetta to rectify, or a shady past that comes to light—and trips them up, they are unrealistic. Their inability to make mistakes makes them a flat and boring cliché.

And he may be your hero, but he’s playing the role as villain and destroying your story.

I understand readers want to escape and want to read about good, strong characters that are witty and beautiful, but there also needs to be an element of realism—a depth and dimension that shows the characters hopes, dreams, and desires, as well as their doubts, faults, and weaknesses.

Characters that never do wrong and never say the wrong thing, offer no progression to your story. If they don’t fail, then they don’t grow, and the story really isn’t a story.

But more than that, if we don’t see them fail, then we don’t really know the kind of person they are, and can’t relate to them or learn from them.

The Unlocked Secret: We are defined not by our failures, but by how we handle our failures. That goes the same for our characters. When a reader witnesses the character failing, but then getting up, dusting off, and trying again, then the uplifting experience they picked the book up for in the first place is successfully delivered—and you’ve got yourself a realistic and relatable story.

Cut the Drama!

Katy Lee here, reflecting on my two week car ride with two preteen girls in the backseat. (And one little brother to instigate) Perhaps some of you can relate with all the drama I witnessed with no hope for an escape. I’ve heard parents say it is normal for cute, compliant children to morph into something that needs an exorcism, but I always thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Ha-Ha, the laughs on me, I guess. My standard line shouted over my shoulder the whole trip was, “Cut the drama!”

 

Whining, bawling, and caterwauling, oh my! And let’s not forget their talented eye roll.  Such skill to be proud of, for sure. I’m told this is normal and should pass in about twenty years. Ugh!

But in the meantime, it is all fodder for the writer in me. I am observing and documenting each snit and pule, each “end-of-the-world” lamentation to use in my writing. (In my defense I’ve warned them that is where they will end up.) And by the end of week one, I had a whole story idea plotted where things don’t go well for them.

But my question to you is this: Do you mind drama queens as main characters in your stories?

I’ve read my fair share of books where the heroines were the whiniest and most spoiled of brats, and I hated them…and not the good kind of hate where you love to hate the characters, but the kind of hate that turns you off from ever picking up a book by that writer again.

But then I’ve read stories where the annoying character redeems themselves through believable endearing acts or their behavior is explained as the story unfolds, and the reader can become sympathetic to their plight instead. It’s a fine line a writer must draw out carefully…and my daughters could definitely learn from. Just saying.

The Unlocked Secret: If a glimmer of hope for redemption is alluded to early enough in the story, I think the reader probably won’t drop the book. They will probably read on to see how their heart can be turned around in favor of the character. Most readers want to like the main characters, but as with my daughters, there’s only so much drama a person can take before they drop the book-or crank up the volume-to cut the drama out completely. Thank God I see that glimmer of hope in my girls. I guess I’ll keep them and see how it all turns out.

Question: So, do you mind drama queens as your main characters? Do you enjoy writing them? What are your tips for endearing an unlikable character to your readers?