Writer’s Block – Fact or Fiction?

You’re halfway through writing your novel and–bang! You’re stuck. Your inspiration has deserted you. You find yourself staring at a blank page for minutes, hours, days, possibly even weeks and months.

So what causes it?

Many different theories have been put forward, everything from lack of focus, fear of failure, poor plotting technique, stress—and if the scientific community are to be believed, Attention Deficit Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

That’s all very well, but you need to get back on track and finish that novel. So how do you do just that?

Ask a group of novelists that question and you will receive a myriad of different answers.

Take me, for example. I’ve been struggling with one scene for weeks. I’d done all the research and had all my notes, but for some reason, the words would just not come. I went on holiday to Florida, the place where my novel is set (purely coincidental, I assure you). I made more notes and came home refreshed and eager to write. After a hesitant start, I finally got the words down on paper.

Now I’m not suggesting that you all rush out and book yourself a holiday. There are other tricks you can try. For example, step away from the keyboard and simply relax with a cup of tea (or coffee). If that doesn’t work, play solitaire (although be warned, that can be addictive), bake a cake, play with the children, doodle, play word association games, mow the lawn or write an article for your blog. You’d be surprised how many times that last trick has got me over a case of writer’s block. Then there’s my all time favourite of going for a walk in the local park or countryside. There’s something about the fresh air and listening to birds’ sing that clears my mind and fires my imagination.

The simple answer is do anything—anything that takes your mind off your project for fifteen to twenty minutes before you sit back down and attempt to write.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time I got back to work!

Pushcart Prize 2009

I am delighted to annouce that my novel, Three Weeks Last Spring, has been nominated for the 2009 Pushcart Prize.

Here’s a copy of the annoucement made by my Publisher:

Vanilla Heart Publishing Announces

2009 Pushcart Prize Nominees

Vanilla Heart Publishing is pleased to announce our nominations for the 2009. The Pushcart Prize – Best of the Small Presses, published every year since 1976, and widely recognized as the most honored literary project in America.

From the Pushcart Prize Website:

“The Pushcart Press has been recognized as among the most influential publishers in American history by Publishers Weekly. Pushcart won the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award (2005), The Poets & Writers/Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Prize (2006), and Publishers Weekly’s Carey Thomas Prize for publisher of the year (1979).

The Press is best known for its annual anthology The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, published every year for more than three decades and featuring outstanding fiction, poetry, memoirs and essays selected from hundreds of little magazines and small book publishers.”

And now, our Vanilla Heart Publishing Nominees:

Robert Hays; The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris

Chelle Cordero; Final Sin

Victoria Howard; Three Weeks Last Spring

Collin Kelley; Conquering Venus

Kate Evans; Complementary Colors

Vila SpiderHawk; Forest Song: Little Mother

Congratulations, Nominees!

Kimberlee Williams
Managing Editor
Vanilla Heart Publishing
http://www.vanillaheartbooksandauthors.com

Backstory: Relevant Information or Inconsequential Event?

Today, I’d delighted to welcome my good friend and fellow author, Brenda Hill to my Blog. A novelist, short story writer, Brenda is the author of two novels, Ten Times Guilty, and Beyond the Quiet, and a non-fiction book, Plot your way to Publication, which I can highly recommend. Brenda also writes features and restaurant reviews for her local newspaper and teaches novel writing and edits manuscripts on a freelance basis. Her website can be found at www.brendahill.com

A few months back I read Brenda’s article on Backstory, something that many new writers spend too much time on, and I’m glad to say she’s agreed to let me post it here.

When we begin a new novel, we need to intimately know our characters. We must know their motivations – why they do certain things and what causes them to react to events with warmth or hostility. Otherwise, their strong reactions or nonchalance may seem strange to other people.

So, to prevent our readers from thinking our character is an escapee from the psycho ward, we create backstories for them, inventing histories, naming parents and siblings, all information we hope will bring that character to life on the page. Some writers go into such detail that they fill page after page of character history, even listing grades the character received in school.

Not me.

While I’m a strong believer in plotting my story beforehand, I’m not one who needs to know what day of the week my character washes her hair – unless it’s relevant to the story. That’s the key. Our readers do not need to know every facet of a character’s life – unless that particular facet is an important storyline.

Suppose, for example, I begin a new book and name my main character Lucy. And let’s further suppose I create a northern Minnesota history for her, and after describing her, I want a character trait that other people would consider a bit ‘quirky’ but harmless. While I’m trying to decide what to give her, my husband flips the TV channel to the latest rerun of Arachnophobia, so I decide to give Lucy a strong fear of spiders. She’ll scream and run at the sight of even a harmless garden spider that may have found its way into her apartment or dormitory.

What do I do with that information? I could use it as a comic relief and show this fear as a source of teasing from her friends, but if that’s the case, it’s not very important and isn’t relevant to the story. When you’re writing tight, it should not be included.

But what if I include WHY Lucy’s fear is so strong. Remember, in fiction, we need to show motivations, not only in character conflicts, but we need to know WHY Lucy screams at the sight of a spider. We must remember to be like a child and always ask why, why, why? Why did George slug his brother on graduation night? Why does Lucy have this overwhelming fear of spiders? While most people do not particularly like spiders, most will not go into hysterics when spotting one. So why does Lucy scream and run?

Now we can invent something brilliant, such as a near-fatal black widow spider bite when she was seven. Venomous spiders are rare in Minnesota, but let’s say her parents visited the Twin Cities and bought home a tropical houseplant from Florida, and one of the leafy branches hid this nice, fat, poisonous black spider. Lucy survived the bite, of course, otherwise there wouldn’t be much to the story, but we could create this horrible experience at the hospital and how she was deathly ill.

That event, even though it’s dramatic, is just that – a dramatic event in her history. As with our friends’ and neighbors’ background, we might find the event mildly interesting, but really, who cares? I shouldn’t bore my readers with that bit of backstory unless it relates to the main plot.

If the plot is about Lucy meeting the love of her life while in graduate school and debating whether or not to marry him and move to another town in Minnesota, then the spider background is not an issue. It’s simply an event that happened in her life that is of no interest to anyone else and shouldn’t be mentioned.

But suppose I want to use it in my story? Suppose I want Lucy to overcome her horror of spiders as part of her character growth? If so, I’d need to invent a storyline where spiders could be an issue.

How about if the love of her life is a young man who thinks the curved tail of a scorpion is fascinating, loves to examine the long, hairy legs of a tarantula, and can’t wait to compare the beautiful red markings of different black widows? Lucy adores him beyond everything, or most everything – she’s repelled by his career choice, which, of course, is Arachnology. He wants to study these creatures and write a book about them, so he plans to move from nice, safe Minnesota and live in the states where their species thrive.

Ah hah! Now we have a possible storyline with the character trait as a main source of conflict.

And to make matters worse, we turn up the heat and say he’s just been offered his dream job as an assistant to the country’s foremost authority on spiders, but only on condition that he immediately accept the position and make the move within the next two weeks. He asks Lucy to marry him and accompany him to his new location.

Lucy now has a dilemma: her fear or her lover? She must make a fast decision, one that could affect her entire life. And readers, if I’ve written the story well enough, will turn the pages to see what she decides. Now I’ve taken a character trait and not only used it in my story, but I’ve used it as a major interest of conflict and built a story around it.

How about traits for your characters? I’m sure you can be more imaginative than the fear of spiders, so list several that are of interest to you. Then explore the conflicts each could trigger. If you can develop a trait and use it to build your story, it’s relevant. The others you can disregard – until the next novel.

Joan Hessayon Award

Each year the Romantic Novelists’ Association presents the Joan Hessayon Award to those members who have come through the Association’s New Writers’ Scheme and have succeeded in having their manuscript published.

This year there were seven contenders, myself included. The winner was announced at the Association’s summer party held in London on Wednesday, 13th May.

As the chairman of the Association, Katie Fforde commented, each and everyone of the women up for the award had won.

Congratulations must go to the overall winner, Allie Spencer, for her novel, Tug of Love, published by Little Black Dress.

As for me… knowing that The House on the Shore was deemed good enough to be a contender and seeing it published, is sufficent reward.

Reviews

I thought I would take some time out from working on my current novel to share some reviews for The House on the Shore.

The first comes from Front Street Reviews. www.frontstreetreviews.com

The House on the Shore
Victoria Howard

Reviewed by Ashley Merrill

Victoria Howard has painted her readers a beautiful picture of Scotland with her words and descriptions. Set in modern times, she tells a wonderful love story that is riddled with suspense.

Anna MacDonald moves to the Scottish Highlands to make a fresh start. After ending a bad relationship and leaving her job, Anna moves into a croft that was left to her by her grandmother. She is tired of the city and wants some peace and quiet so she can spend her summer writing a book and also reconnect with her childhood friends.

The last thing on Anna’s mind is meeting a man. Not only does she meet a very good looking American man whose boat breaks down near her croft, but she instantly feels an emotional and physical connection with him. Trying her best to ignore these feelings, Anna finds herself in a heap of trouble. She gets a letter offering a hefty sum of money to sell her croft, which she quickly declines. Soon after, she appears to become a target to someone. This someone is pretty adamant that he wants her dead. She gets shot at, her home gets broken into, and her car is tampered with, among other things. Fearing for her safety, Anna’s friend convinces her to allow Luke, the dreamy American with a heart melting smile, to stay with her until she can find out who wants to hurt her.

As the days go on, Anna and Luke form a special bond and cling to each other. At the same time, Anna’s stalker is upping the ante and Luke will stop at nothing to find the man so that Anna will be safe.

Victoria Howard does a wonderful job with her character creations. In fact, I found myself falling for Luke! She allows you to see inside their world and form a bond with them. I also liked the description of the landscape. Victoria Howard gives just enough description without going overboard.

The suspense of the story was what really captured my interest. I adore a good love story, so with the added suspense Victoria Howard has created an amazing story that will captivate her readers until the very end. I would recommend this story to any romance and suspense lovers. The romance is not too over the stop, so it will not spoil the story for all of the suspense lovers out there!

The second is from Armchair Interviews. http://reviews.armchairinterviews.com/reviews/the-house-on-the-shore

Reviewed by Jenny Saylers

Anna MacDonald has been betrayed! The coveted teaching position she has been waiting to get has been given to the other woman that her boss, and boyfriend, has been sleeping with. In anger, Anna quits her job, gives up her flat in Edinburgh, and takes off for the only place that she has ever felt truly happy–Anna’s late grandmother’s croft, located on the shores of Loch Hourn, in the Scottish Highlands.

The croft is isolated. Anna has no phone, no close neighbors, and only her two border collies for company. Her plan for the summer is to nurse her broken heart and pride back to normal while working on the novel she has been yearning to write for years. She doesn’t plan for company during this time. Especially not the unexpectedly handsome company offered in the form of the slightly rude American who knocks at her door one morning.

Luke Tallantyre is a well-known artist from Cape Cod Massachusetts. Faced with an artistic dry spell, he has set sail for the unknown wilds of Scotland. He has braved the Atlantic Ocean alone, and has come to Loch Hourn. When his yacht develops a navigational problem, he ends up knocking on Anna’s door for help.

Anna is more than a little resentful of Luke’s intrusion. Faced with an attraction she doesn’t know how to handle after her last rejection, she finds him an unwelcome distraction into her hermetic life. However, when an unknown assassin tries several times to kill both Anna and Luke, they find themselves thrown together in an attempt to find out why.

Will Anna and Luke find out who is trying to kill them and why? Will either of them realize the opportunity for true love that arises during the time they spend together?

I really enjoyed this book. The story drew me in quickly. I found myself having to pace my reading in order not to rush through the book. I enjoyed Victoria Howard’s descriptions of the Scottish Highlands, and Loch Hourn.

Watch for the re-release of Three Weeks Last Spring, due out in June 2009.

Armchair Interviews says: Victoria Howard writes a very compelling story.

Author’s Web site: http://www.VictoriaHoward.co.uk

From our armchair to yours…

Backstory

On my recent appearance on the Rony Robinson Show on BBC Radio Sheffield, we talked about backstory or the infodump, and why telling the reader too much, too soon, should be avoided.

What exactly do writers mean when they talk about backstory? Basically, it is filling the reader in on the background of your story, why the action takes place where it does, the subtext of your character’s lives, and the reasons for the big question or problem they have to solve.

Backstory is essential to novels, but the opening pages aren’t the place to go into depth about your character’s past or the places they inhabit. The trick is to give the reader just enough information to make them care, and want to find out what happens next.

You need to think carefully about the opening chapter. Readers don’t necessarily have to know that your heroine has blue eyes, blonde hair, and lives with her aged mother in a tumbledown cottage, or that the hero has two siblings who have green eyes and regularly tap him for a loan.

Think of the opening of your novel as the equivalent of an appetiser—a bit of teasing in order to keep the reader hooked. A couple of sentences here and there, no long blocks. Backstory is showing not telling. Your readers want to launch into the action. They want to see what’s happening. They don’t want to be told.

What about flashbacks – those little scenes where your character starts to think about something that took place weeks/months/years ago? Flashbacks can slow the pace of the story and confuse readers. They are best used in a prologue, but be careful that you don’t tell the reader too much, too soon. There are three primary ways to include backstory in your novel.

  1. Dialogue.
  2. Narrative.
  3. Description.

I prefer to use dialogue. It feels more natural to have my characters talk about their past, or explain their reason for acting in a particular way. But it’s a personal choice and you have to decide what works best for that part of the story.

But how do you know how much backstory to use?

That’s a difficult question, and to a certain extent, the decision is yours. Just remember, too much backstory will make the reader bored and tempt him or her to put the book down. You’ll lose their attention. They may even wonder why they picked up the book in the first place, and that’s the last thing any writer wants.

March is Small Press Month

What exactly is a small press? The term is used to describe publishers who have annual sales below a certain limit, or who publish a limited number of titles each year. Small presses make up half the market share of the book publishing industry, and present an opportunity for new writers to break into publishing. They should not be confused with vanity publishers or subsidy presses who require their authors to pay for the privilege of having their book published. Small presses make their profits by selling their books to consumers and not to their authors.

What are the advantages of being published by a small press?

1. Small presses have more freedom. They are not restricted by the same economic values and constraints as the large publishing houses.

2. They can take advantage of modern technology and publish a comparatively smaller run of copies, a practice deemed too costly for the large houses, who must sell large numbers of books in order to earn back their advances.

3. They can specialize in specific genres, such as historical non-fiction, poetry, romance, and erotica.

4. One of the major advantages of working with a small press is that an author can expect to be fully involved in the publishing process, from advertising the book, to deciding on a cover.

5. Small presses respond more quickly and often accept unsolicited manuscripts, whereas larger publishing houses will often only consider manuscripts recommended by an agent.

6. Sometimes it is easier to have a manuscript accepted by a small press than it is a larger publishing house, and for a new writer, that has to be good news.

Can small presses compete with the big houses?

Admittedly, it can be more difficult for a small independent publisher to obtain shelf space in bookstores, partly due to the fact that the larger houses often pay for prominent displays for their top of the list authors. But that’s not to say that it’s impossible.

There are many distribution networks willing to fill the needs of the small press, such as Baker and Taylor’s Distribution Solutions Group, Small Press Distribution and the Publishers Marketing Association. There is nothing to prevent small presses signing up with Neilson Book Data or Gardners Books here in the UK. The Internet is also an effective marketing and sales too.

So come along and help celebrate small press book by visiting your local bookstore, or better yet, take a look at Vanilla Heart’s website.

www.vanillaheartbooksandauthors.com/VHP_Bookstore.html.

You might be pleasantly surprised at the range and number of titles available.

Head hopping: to hop or not to hop!

Have you ever read a scene in a novel and suddenly wondered, ‘Who is thinking this?’ Quite often, it means that the writer has hopped into another character’s head and you, the reader, didn’t follow the shift. When this happens, readers will most likely lay down the book, never to pick it up again.

Some well-established romance authors, such as Nora Roberts, Elizabeth Lowell, Julie Garwood, and Lori Wick have mastered this style. But not every author has their expertise or quick-switch style.

For the new writer, mastering the point of view (POV) switch takes time. Just so you know what I’m talking about, let me define POV. Point of view is simply the perspective from which your story is told. This can include first, second or third person, omniscient, limited third person or whatever else is out there.

Head-hopping is not to be confused with multiple points of view. Most books on the craft of writing state that you should only use one POV per scene. However, sometimes it’s necessary to bend the rules. Editors, especially those of category, single title, and suspense romance, are looking for vividly created three-dimensional characters they can relate to, empathize with, or, if necessary, hate. Including both the hero and heroine’s viewpoint not only gives the reader insight into both sides of the developing relationship, it’s also a way to create and maintain, tension, conflict, and suspense. Being able to switch smoothly from one character’s POV at a pivotal moment hooks the reader and keeps them turning pages to find out what happens next.

That said, I’m not saying you should go out and write every paragraph from a different POV. Good writing is important. Too many changes and your readers become confused or just lose interest. They need to bond with your characters, and they can’t do that if you don’t give them enough time with them. Remember; if you must switch POV during scene make sure the switch is smooth.

When you understand the rules, then you can make the right choice for your story, and decide whether you want to be a POV purist, or a head hopper.

To find out which one I am, you’ll just have to read my book!

Valentine’s Day Release

What a busy three months! Life has been on big rush ever since Vanilla Heart accepted my submission for The House on the Shore. Not only did the cover and synopsis appear on Amazon.com and other online bookstores, but it will also be available in libraries in both the UK and USA. WooHoo!!!

The House on the Shore

Set in the Highlands of Scotland, this visually magical tale takes the reader on a journey from the remote shores of Loch Hourn to the singular beauty of Cape Cod.

And for those of you who might be considering buying a copy, here’s a short excerpt:

Her concentration was broken by the shriek of frantic barking. She tore her gaze away from the screen and looked out of the kitchen window. A tall, dark-haired man was making his way up the crescent-shaped beach, doing a weird twisting dance, holding his right arm above his head. With his left he pushed off the two boisterous, snapping collies.

“Oh hell,” she groaned. She threw open the door and shouted. “Ensay! Rhona! Heel!”

The dogs instantly stopped snapping at the stranger’s ankles and ran to their mistress. Anna leaned against the door frame and waited while the figure strode confidently across the grass towards her, his well-muscled body covering the rough ground with long, purposeful strides. His jet black hair showed a little grey at the temples, the cut slightly longer than was considered acceptable for a man she judged to be in his forties. But somehow it suited him.

He stopped a foot from her door, close enough for her to smell the lemon spice of his cologne. Now that she could see him more clearly, she noticed the laughter lines around his eyes and mouth, hinting at a softer side to his character. His body was lean, the outline of his muscles visible through the shirt he wore. A faint white scar creased his right cheek, and she thought it gave his face a handsome rugged look. He gazed at her with dark brown eyes and smiled, slow and warm, and for some reason her breathing quickened.

With just one look she knew he was trouble.

“Hi, there. I know I’m trespassing, but do you think you could ask your dogs not to rip off my thigh?”

Anna drew herself up to her full height, which was barely up to his shoulder. “They’re guard dogs and only doing their duty,” she said stiffly. The dogs sat at her silent signal, but their eyes remained fixed on the stranger.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m having engine trouble and I can’t get a signal.” He indicated his mobile phone.

“That’s because there are no transmitters.”

“Oh, then could I borrow your phone? I need to contact the nearest boatyard for some advice.”

“I don’t have a phone.”

He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Look, I haven’t slept for twenty-four hours and I’m beat. Sandpiper, that’s my yacht, developed a problem soon after I left Stornaway.” He paused as her words registered. “Did I hear right? You don’t have a phone?”

“No, I don’t, so I’m afraid I can’t help you. I suggest you weigh anchor, turn your boat around, and head west out of the loch.”

“Perhaps I should’ve introduced myself. I’m Luke Tallantyre, from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.” He offered his hand. She didn’t take it.

“Anna, Anna MacDonald. Yachts are always straying into the loch at this time of year. Their crews seem to think this is some sort of hostel. Well, it’s not, and I still don’t have a phone.”

“Okay, so where do I catch the bus to town?” His eyes lingered on her face. “Oh, no. You’re about to tell me there isn’t a bus either. Aren’t you?”

Anna nodded. The motion sent sunlight gliding through her auburn hair. “That’s right. Welcome to Kinloch Hourn, otherwise known as the Loch of Hell.”

“The name fits,” Luke muttered. “What sort of place doesn’t have a phone or a bus service in this day and age?”

“How about the remotest glen in the Highlands? Up here, one man and his dog constitute a crowd. And before you ask, there are no shops either, unless you count Mrs McCloud in the village, but she only opens on alternate days. The butcher’s van calls every Thursday afternoon, and the library service visits once a month. I think that about covers all the local amenities. Oh yes, there’s a mobile bank too, but that only comes once a fortnight. The school closed last year. But you’re in luck…there’s a hotel and it has a phone.”

“So there is a God after all.”

“However, its twelve miles down the road in that direction,” she replied, pointing vaguely to some distant place.

Book Reviews

As all serious writers know a good review not only boosts your self-esteem, its also good for sales! I thought I’d take a break from working on my current manuscript and share the review for my soon-to-be published novel, The House on the Shore.

www.apexreviews.net

The House On The Shore

Victoria Howard

ISBN: 9781935407249

Vanilla Heart Publishing

Reviewed By Renee Washburn

Official Apex Reviews Rating: **** (4 stars)

Anna MacDonald is looking to start over. She’s just been passed over for a promotion that she’s eagerly awaited – and, to make matters worse, her own boyfriend is the supervisor that snubbed her. To top it all off, the lucky recipient of her desired position just happens to be – of all things – his new lover…ouch…

So, in an effort to wipe the slate clean, she retreats to the Scottish shore, establishing her new residence in an old, yet sturdy house owned by her grandparents. Her only plans? Soak up the splendor of her rustic surroundings and fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a published author. Joined by her trusty Border collies, Ensay and Rhona, Anna couldn’t ask for a more opportune chance to start fresh while mending the broken pieces of her still-aching heart.

Little does she know, though, she won’t have the chance to enjoy her solitude for long. Shortly after her arrival, she makes the acquaintance of the handsome, charming Luke, a successful artist from across the pond, and the chemistry between the two of them can’t be denied for long. Soon caught up in the throes of a passionate love affair, Anna appears to be on the cusp of lasting happiness – but, alas, she eventually learns that bliss and trouble are often flip sides of the same coin, and when an unseen stranger begins escalating his efforts to end her life, she’s suddenly thrust in the midst of a sinister mystery that leaves her wondering just who wants her dead – and why…

The House On The Shore is an enjoyable read. In it, Victoria Howard presents a well-crafted page turner that unfolds at just the right pace, ensuring that the reader’s attention is held captive with each new mysterious development. Howard also does a commendable job of infusing her characters with vivid, palpable personality, framing their inclinations and reactions in the three-dimensional, thus making it easy for readers to relate to them in very real, practical terms.

A quick but compelling read, The House On The Shore is a can’t miss suspense thriller with a surprisingly potent punch, and one that fans of the genre are sure to enjoy.