People Watching During a Pandemic – From the Writers in the Storm Blog

by Eldred “Bob” Bird

There’s no doubt 2020 has changed some of our writing habits. In the years BC (Before Covid), one of my favorite writing exercises was people watching. I’d tote my laptop to parks libraries, pubs, and a whole host of other public places. This is where I found inspiration when building characters or looking for new and interesting ways to represent human interactions in my writing.

I paid close attention to things like body language, facial expressions, and all the little nuances that set someone apart and made them stand out from the crowd. I listened in on conversations and tried to guess where the person talking was from based on their accent and use of slang. I made up stories about the couple whispering at a table in the dark corner of the bar. This was my creative playground.

Read the rest of this post HERE.

Using a Character Bible – Is it worth it?

As I embark on my next writing venture after a 2020 hiatus, I realized something. The equation of my age plus the stress of 2020 and the length of time since I’ve written a Frank Rozzani book has added up to me forgetting the details of many of my familiar characters. I remember reading a while back about having a character bible, a book of character profiles. The article I read talked about how this is especially important if you write a multiple-book series with the same characters.

At the time, I said to myself, “I’ll never forget these characters. They’re part of me.” Well, as I get older, I’m pretty sure there are actual parts of me that I’ve forgotten.

As I try to write for my tried and true characters, I find myself searching my previous books for things like dates, names, hair and eye color and other things that would be great to have at my fingertips. As a result, I’m revisiting the idea of the character bible. I thought that one useful resource would be to go to the blogging community of authors, editors and readers and ask for your opinions and experience.

I thought I would begin, however, by telling you what I’ve learned about this tool for those of you that haven’t heard of it or have been using elements of it without realizing it had a name.

What is a Character Bible?

There is no single definition or series of components that make up a character bible. From the research I’ve done, it’s basically a collection of character profiles each of which tell you about the character’s:

  • Name – This might seem obvious, but a character’s name is important. Think of Alex Cross and the numerous James Patterson books bearing his surname in the title. To a much, much lesser degree, of course, there are my Frank Rozzani detective novels that all have ‘Frank’ in some form in the title Frankly Speaking, Let Me Be Frank, Frank Incensed (my personal favorite), Frankly My Dear and Frank Immersed.
  • Physical Appearance/Mannerisms – The characters height, body type, hair color, eye color, physical anomalies and disabilities and other information about how the character looks.
  • History – Information about the character’s backstory, cultural, educational and socio-economic situation and any other relevant information that is material to the plot.
  • Personality – What psychological quirks, conditions or flaws does the character have? What motivates him/her? What are his/her desires? What’s missing from his/her life?

Now, the worst thing you can do is dump all of this information about the character into your story in one fell swoop. You can dribble out the information as needed in small doses. The other thing to avoid, however, is your character developing some ability or piece of knowledge from his background out of convenience to get you past a snag in the story without foreshadowing it first.

What characters should be in the Character Bible?

Again, there is no universal agreement on this, but characters you can consider are those that are pivotal to the story and more than just one-dimensional “fillers” like:

  • Protagonist – The main character or hero of your story.
  • Antagonist The villain or anti-hero of your story.
  • Love Interest – The person that makes your protagonist’s heart flutter.
  • Sidekick – The Robin to your character’s Batman.
  • Supporting Characters – Those colorful folks in the background that give humor, expertise and other key elements to your story.
  • Sub-Plot Characters – The stars of those little vignettes that advance your story through the actions of secondary characters.

It’s up to you, the author, how many character profiles you put in your Character Bible. If you’re a John Grisham or James Patterson type, you probably have less than a half-dozen characters to keep straight. If you’re a Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or J.R.R. Tolkien type writer, buy a few notebooks to fill.

Tools for Creating A Character Bible

There are several templates out there for you to create the character profiles that will become part of your character bible. I’ve selected some here to give you an idea of what’s out there:

Reedsy Character Profile

For those of you that belong to Reedsy, or even if you don’t, the site offer’s a character profile template separated into various sections. An image of the first page is shown below:

Courtesy of http://www.reedsy.com

As you can see, it’s pretty straightforward and guides you through the information that makes up the profile. I see pros and cons in the level of detail. I tend to only think about what I need to know about my characters, but I suppose the additional information, much of which you’ll never use in the story, might help you get a more accurate picture of what motivates him or her.

Filestage Character Bio Template

Filestage is another online site offering a character bio template in a spreadsheet format. It does have some nuances that the Reedsy template doesn’t cover, but the spirit is the same. I suppose you can create multiple tabs to add additional characters. Here is a snapshot of what it looks like:

Internet Writing Journal

Another character profile format appears on the Internet Writing Journal site. Again, it has much of the same information and you can pick and choose how much of it you’d like to use.

Conclusion

It’s entirely up to you if you want to create a character bible. I’m headed in that direction with my latest Frank Rozzani book so I can make the current book and any additional sequels more manageable.

I’d love to hear from you on your experience with this technique. Have you used it? Have you thought about it? How do you keep your characters straight?

Your comments, as always, are welcome.

The Value of Writing Young Adult Literature – From the Writers in the Storm Blog

by Ellen Buikema

One of the most valuable qualities of writing YA Literature is how it addresses the needs of its readers. Young adulthood is a tumultuous time of evolving, searching for self and identity, growing and changing, transforming from the world of childhood to that of adulthood. This rite of passage is a distinct part of life, marked by specific needs—emotional, intellectual, and societal.

Many adult readers enjoy YA novels in part because it allows them to travel back in time to revisit events of their youth, cheering for the protagonists and agonizing with them. There can be a sense of catharsis, following the protagonists on their journeys.

Modern civilization has left a gap. In many societies elders no longer lead their youth through a rite of passage or coming-of-age. YA stories can assist in fill that gap, helping young adults to experience these transitions through the written word.

Read the rest of this post HERE.

A Different Approach for Writing Success This Year – From the Writers in the Storm Blog

By Janice Hardy
@Janice_Hardy

A new year often starts by declaring your goals and dreams, but a frightful number of writers don’t achieve those goals—or those dreams.

And I was one of them for a very long time.

I’d start every January with high hopes and ambitious plans about what I was going to accomplish that year. Sure, I didn’t get everything done the previous year, but I’d learned from those mistakes, and this year would be different.

Sound familiar?

Read the rest of this great post HERE.

How to Make A Grand Opening – From the Writers in the Storm blog

Tina Ann Forkner

There is a lot of buzz around town about a new business that recently opened in my community. From what I hear, it’s already booming just a few weeks in. This new business is a cocktail lounge, and while I’m not familiar with what it takes to open a lounge, I couldn’t help but notice that the owners spent a great deal of time preparing for the grand opening. Every time I passed by, they were working on making it look good. They knew that if they wanted customers to return, they would need to plan a fabulous opening that would make customers want more.

The same can be applied to the opening of a novel. If you want a reader to continue reading, then your opening must be grand.

When I say grand, I don’t mean complicated. I just mean the opening needs to succinctly give the reader a taste of what’s to come and make them want more. I have had the pleasure of being a judge in several writing contests, and I have noticed that most openings of unpublished manuscripts are lackluster and do very little to set the tone or hook you in. In fact, if I were not a judge, I would not read past any of those openings. That’s not good news since in the publishing field, writers must grab an editor from the first page, if not the first paragraph – even the first sentence – or your time is up.

Read the rest of this post HERE.

Back Story – When do you use it? How much should you use? Is it necessary?

Here is an oldie but goodie that I thought I would re-post with some updates:


My blog this week expands on a concept that appeared as a tip in an earlier blog. That tip focused on removing writing that was unnecessary. When I completed my first book, I tried to make sure that all of my characters were fully developed. I created biographies for each of them using templates that I found on the Internet. These templates included sections for physical attributes, motivations, character traits, family background and other biographical details.

In my Frank Rozzani Detective Series, the main character has events in his back story that motivate who he is in the present time. These events pushed him into his career as a private detective and forced him to relocate. My first draft of the book had two full chapters devoted to Frank’s back story. I thought that readers would want all of this rich detail about his former life in Syracuse, NY along with his family history and the tragic events that brought him to the present day in the story. I incorporated this as a flashback. I was excited about it and sent it off to my editor.

When I received my editor’s comments, she slashed nearly all of the flashback chapters from the book. She said that it was all unnecessary and that I should be more stingy with the back story and spread it out throughout this book and the ones that would follow. It was a blow to my ego at first, but in hindsight, she was absolutely right.

After this eureka moment, I started looking at the way other writers used back story in their work. Some of them, like John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard use back story very sparingly and only reveal details when they are relevant to the current story. Others like Dean Koontz and, in some instances, Stephen King, use back story to develop their characters into living and breathing people full of complexity. I wanted to land somewhere in the middle and I think, with my first book, and to a greater degree, my second book, I have succeeded somewhat.

Have I mastered the use of back story? Absolutely not. I don’t think, as writers, we ever truly perfect any aspect of our writing. I thought, however, that I would post some tips that I use and that might help you as you look for balance in sharing character background information in your work.

flashback

1) Use the flash back technique sparingly: Unless you are writing a book about time travel, you can really confuse your reader by jumping back and forth in your book. If your reader starts to wonder where and when the story is taking place, you might lose them. If you must use flash back, consider doing it in short doses, such as in a character’s dream. If you have to devote a chapter to it, be certain that the details are relevant to the story.

conversation

2) Consider giving past information as part of a conversation: This technique might involve a character telling their story to another character as part of a conversation. You want to avoid long monologues by your main character. You should try to make the reveal of the back story more of an interactive scene between the characters.

background

3) Incorporate portions of background details as a summary: Many authors use this technique to indicate what has happened in the past. They will reveal details in the character’s background with single sentences.  Here is an example:

“As an attorney, John vigorously went after cigarette manufacturers. He wanted nothing more than to be victorious in cases against them while securing high punitive damages for his clients. This passion was fueled by the deaths of both of his parents from lung cancer.”

believe4) Make the back story believable and realistic: As an author, you should think out the main points of your main characters’  back story. Don’t invent events just to suit your story. The back story should be grounded in some type of reality. You can’t have your character defeat their enemy with a complex form of martial arts if studying the techniques do not make sense in the characters background. Maybe he or she was in special forces or spent time in Asia.

need-to-know-gif

5) Create a situation where the information needs to be known: In my first book, Frankly Speaking, the main character is single and is being pursued by a beautiful, successful woman. Despite her obvious hints, he resists her. When things finally come to a head, he reveals the details of his wife’s murder to her and explains his reluctance to get into a new relationship. This is a case where the reader was aware of some of the details, but other characters were not.

I hope that these tips about back story were helpful to you. I learn more about the different methods to reveal character background details as I read more and apply the techniques that I’ve learned to my own writing. Those things that motivate your characters might be the things that keep your readers interested, especially if you have multiple works that feature the same cast of characters.

 

Writing Your First Book – Where Do You Start?

Every time I attend an author event, there is always the attempt to separate authors into the two camps of those who meticulously outline and those that write completely by the seat-of-the-pants, affectionately known as ‘pantsers’.

I sat and listened to the virtues of these two camps and decided that I am firmly planted in a third camp. I don’t outline every chapter, but I do like a road map. I consider my method more visual and less rigid than outlining, but, to continue the road map analogy, I don’t like to just get in the car and go in whatever direction the road takes me.

I do let my characters and their personalities drive within the conscripts of my loose road map, but I don’t confine them to one road. If they want to take the scenic route, I’m open to that.

So, how does this process work, I’ll try to lay it out for you the best that I can. I’m gearing this toward the writing of fiction. Non-fiction, in my opinion, works a bit differently.

Step 1 – Come Up With an Idea

Sounds easy, right. It’s not really. A good story has to have a great beginning. In this world of instant gratification and short attention spans, you’ve got to grab your reader from the beginning. I think we’d all agree that you need a good ending. Nothing is more of a letdown than investing your time in a book only to have an ending that disappoints. (Have you read The Firm).

The thing that writers struggle with the most is the middle (often called ‘the muddle’). If your book meanders off into dark corners and doesn’t recover well, you’ll lose your readers.

Make sure your idea is strong and has a strong second act.

Step 2 – The Mind Map

The mind map is a technique I’ve used in my consulting career to storyboard presentations, but it translates well to writing. It is a visual representation of your book that starts with the book title in a cloud in the middle of the picture and connected rectangles surrounding it. Each rectangle represents an idea which could be a chapter. I use one or two sentences in each rectangle to represent the main idea of the chapter. Here is a mind map that I used for my second book, Let Me Be Frank.

Mind Map - Frank 2

When I created this mind map, I left the chapter numbers off so that I would have the latitude to re-order them if needed. This mind map allows me to move into the next phase of building the novel seamlessly.

Step 3 – Set Up Your Tool of Choice

My tool of choice for writing is Scrivener. It’s an industry-standard tool and has some built in utilities that are very useful. The thing I like about it is that it emulates the old corkboard and index card method of writing about as closely as an electronic word processing tool can.

When I open up a new project in Scivener, I go right to the corkboard view and lay out my chapters just as they are in my mind map. Here is what it looks like from the same book.

cork

You’ll notice that none of my chapters have numbers. Scrivener will automatically number them based on the order that I put them in on the cork board. In this view, you can drag and drop to your hear’s content.

I usually set up my entire book before I write. Then I can drill down into the next step.

Step 4 – Set Up Scenes Within Uour Chapters

Just like the chapter view, Scrivener gives me a scene view. As I write each chapter, I set up scenes within it. The scenes usually correspond with a change in the setting. They can be long or short. A chapter can contain a single scene or many. In my view, each chapter is a self contained story, or episode, within the book. A corkboard view for a single chapter is shown below.

cork2

I don’t want this post to be a commercial for Scrivener, but it’s the tool I use and if you’re wanting something that organizes your writing better than just a straight word processor, it’s worth checking out. Like the full book view, you can rearrange the cards on the corkboard to change the order of scenes.

Step 5 – Other Visualization Methods

As I complete each chapter in the book, I like to use other tools to see if I’m on track. One tool that I have talked about in the past that is a popular social media trending tool is generating a word cloud. Word clouds count how many times a word is used in a certain context and generates a graphic with the most used words in a larger size, more prominent color, or both. I did this with one of my detective books and was pleased with the result shown below:

Frank 2 - Chapter 2

In another example, I wrote a short story about a boy named Desmond that sells his soul to an evil character named Lou to become a great jazz pianist. The result is below:

Des Cloud

There are several free Internet tools that will do this.

As for the steps that are left, they include things like:

  • Finish writing your book
  • Enlist the help of an editor
  • Fix the things the editor finds
  • Design a cover
  • Market it
  • Sell it
  • Spend your riches

Of course, I will expand on many of these in future posts. Also, I have a book with many of these tips spelled out in more detail that is available on Amazon that you can get by clicking the cover below.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00054]

I look forward to hearing from fellow authors on the steps you use. Please comment as you see fit.

The Birth, Care, and Feeding of a Mailing List – Part 1

Hello out there in Blog Land. I’ve been posting tips about Advance Reader Copies, Beta Readers, and Street Teams. It occurred to me that, for some authors, this might be putting the cart before the horse. In order to form these things, I’ve found that they all come from one thing that I had to establish first, a mailing list.

The Birth of a Mailing List

stork_baby

There are numerous ways to establish a mailing list, both good and bad. What I have found is that, if you want engaged contacts that are likely to read what you have written, you need to concentrate on the quality of your mailing list and not the quantity of people on it.

In order to build a quality mailing list, you have to appeal to the interests of those that sign up. I have built the bulk of my list from two sources which I will expand on in future posts after I summarize them here.

First, I did a giveaway. When I released my first detective novel, Frankly Speaking, I did a giveaway using Rafflecopter. This service lets you set up a giveaway with pictures of the prizes and it collects contact information for those that enter. It’s really important to let your entrants know that you are putting them on your mailing list when you do this. My initial giveaway consisted of three prizes. First prize was a pen with an integrated video camera. It was about $50. Second prize was a signed copy of the book and third prize was an eBook copy. This resulted in about 700 mailing list subscribers.

Rafflecopter is a free service that integrates with another free service, MailChimp.  This service, which I’ll talk about in depth in another post,  allows the management of mailing lists and the setting up of newsletters and mail campaigns. For a minimal monthly cost, you can automate your mailings.

The second method I used, which I believe resulted in higher quality mailing list members, was to use the combination of Facebook advertising and MailChimp to give away copies of my first book to anyone that signed up. With MailChimp, I was able to link to stored .mobi (Kindle) and PDF copies of my book that subscribers could automatically download. Over a period of a month, this resulted in about 1,000 additional subscribers.

I’ve kept the giveaway and the free book subscribers separate on  MailChimp. The reason for this is my perception of the difference in the quality of these two groups. Those that took the chance on downloading my book might actually be more apt to buy future work and may be classified as readers. The giveaway group, in my opinion, is just made up of people that wanted free stuff. The reason that I want to keep them separate will become evident in the next section.

Care and Feeding

care

Once you have a mailing list, you should not abuse it or your subscribers by sending them junk. One thing that you want to avoid is having people unsubscribe and flag you as a spam sender. This will damage the reputation of your mailing list and your email address. You don’t want this to happen or all of your posts will be ‘blacklisted’ and will go to spam folders everywhere never to be read or heard from again.

Be judicious about what you send. Make sure it’s content that your subscribers will be interested in. If you annoy enough of them and they unsubscribe and flag you as a spammer, all of your hard work on building your list will be for naught.

To keep your subscribers interested, you should involve them in your process, give them previews of upcoming work, tell them about events, and occasionally give them some bonus content.

You should not treat them like blog followers. A blog gives someone the choice if they want to look at your content. Filling up someone’s email inbox with content will put you on the road to Spamville in a hurry.

I hope this is helpful to you. I will publish more detailed posts about the use of giveaways and MailChimp in the future.

In the meantime, your comments and questions are welcome.

 

Choosing a Book Title – Make Good Choices

When I wrote my first novel, I wanted the main character to be, like me, and Italian American. There are many Italian-sounding first names I could have gone with, Tony, Johnny, Carmine, etc. I decided to go with Frank. Frank is a name that is common among Italians, but it also gave me the opportunity to be clever with the title. I went with Frankly SpeakingThere were other books with this title, but none in the genre in which I was writing. It was a good title in that it seemed to work and not adversely affect sales.

Then came the sequel. For the sequel, I decided to use ‘Frank’ in the title. To try something different, I actually ran a contest and the person with the winning title had their name used as a character in the book. It was gimmicky, but it worked and I landed on Let Me Be Frank as the title. I adapted the story by having Frank use an alias for part of his investigation.

The second book was well received and I had several readers clamoring for more ‘Frank’.  The story arc across the books had led to a loved one of Frank’s being in danger and him using drastic measures to capture her. I was inspired and went with Frank IncensedI released the book right before participating in the Indie Bookfest in Orlando. I participated on a panel and the subject of book titles came up. I mentioned my series and my hope that I wouldn’t run out of titles before I ran out of story ideas. After the panel discussion, a gentleman came up and presented me with a list of about 25 ‘Frank’ titles. Some were usable. Some were PG-13 to R rated.

I started thinking about other authors that have done this with titles. James Patterson comes to mind with his Alex Cross books that mostly use the word ‘cross’ in the title. Sue Grafton is another with her ‘A’ Is For Alibi, ‘B’ Is For Burglar, ‘C’ Is For Corpse, etc. series. She painted herself into a 26 book series. Janet Evanovich and her One For The Money Stephanie Plum series seems to have infinite possibilities for titles.

If you are working on a series, is it smart to tie them together with a gimmicky title? Some authors avoid this. I am a fan of the Jonathan Kellerman Alex Delaware series of books. They all have unique, unrelated titles with the subtitle, ‘An Alex Delaware Novel’.

I’m curious about your thinking on this. What experiences have you had? How do you choose a book title?

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

 

Indie Authors – What is your toughest challenge? Part I of an ongoing series

As an author, there are significant challenges. Finding original ideas and turning them into something interesting is a significant challenge. If you are a traditionally published author, you have to not only find an idea that interests you, but it has to interest your publisher as something marketable and viable so that they can make money. You also have to please your agent so that they will push your work on a publisher.

As an independent author, coming up with ideas, in my opinion, is the smallest hurdle to be faced. Because we are independent, we are free to publish whatever interests us and then take that work directly to the readers. One thing that indie authors discover quickly through social media, there are niche reader markets for just about every genre you can think of. If you like to right paranormal zombie western romance erotica, there will be a group that will read it.

My own genre, private investigator mysteries, seems to appeal to readers of a certain ‘seasoned’ age. That’s fine with me. I will join that demographic in the next ten years or so and these retiring baby boomers have time to read and money to buy books.

I deviated from this genre for my terrorism thriller, Blood Orange, and found that, indeed, the demographics of the readers that favored this book changed. This is something that, as an independent author, I believe you can get away with by searching out the appropriate niche for your writing.

After landing on what genre you want to write in, there are many other challenges that the independent author faces. Becoming known is a significant challenge. When I first started out, I put my first book on Amazon and hoped for the best. My friends and family bought some and posted some reviews.

At this early stage, I got some help from a self-proclaimed expert promoter of independent authors. I did get some traction from some of the things that this person helped me with. Interviews and reviews appeared on various blogs. I was interviewed on a podcast, and slowly but surely, my exposure grew a bit.

I soon found that the techniques that this person was using to help me gain exposure were easily achievable on my own. I gradually started to take these things on and found that my reader base continued to grow steadily.

Getting good, constructive reviews on Amazon and other platforms is a great start. It can be a slow process, however, building up a collection of reviews. One technique that helps is offering your book for free over a weekend. During my first giveaway, I had over 1,000 copies of my first book downloaded and I saw the reviews begin to grow. With the reviews came additional readers.

I want to make this blog post the first in a series that deals with the challenges that we face as indie authors. What I need are your ideas and feedback regarding the challenges that you’ve faced. One thing I learned early on is that I am not competing with my fellow indie authors. We are all in this together and can learn from each other.

So, let’s help each other. Let’s share challenges and ideas so we can grow as a community.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.