Writers conferences – how to get the best literary nourishment.

In July I was fortunate to attend the Romantic Novelists’ annual conference in Caerleon, South Wales. This is the first genre specific conference I’ve attended, and while I’m no expert on the conference scene, I was keen to mingle with my fellow romantic suspense authors, listen to industry professionals and agents.
My conference pack offered a cornucopia of workshops, agent appointments, and industry panels, and I was hard pressed to choose which suited my needs best. Was my time best spent listening to a published author share techniques for developing your story hook? Or would it be better listening to a lecture on time management? All of which made me think what advice I would give to a first-time conference attendee.

Often when you sign up for a writers conference, which let’s face it, aren’t exactly inexpensive, few details, other than the venue and date, are available. The name of the keynote speaker and details of the workshops and agent appointments are sent with the conference pack after you have paid the fee. Personally, I find this a little disconcerting. After all, you wouldn’t order dinner in a restaurant without first looking at the menu or go to the movies without knowing what was showing.

So, when attending a writing conference whether genre specific or not, you need to focus carefully on what’s available. If you have any doubts on whether the conference will be suitable for your style of writing and genre, contact the organiser before you pay the fee. He or she should be able to give you some more details, even if the some of the speakers are yet to give details of their workshops. Select the sessions that fit your needs. For example, if you’re struggling with the plot of your novel, your time is best spent in a session dealing with the technique rather than pitching the idea for your as yet unwritten novel. Know the content of each session before you arrive at the conference venue.

Conferences, especially those in the USA, are filled with editors, agents, publishers and booksellers. Take time to talk to them, although I don’t recommend accosting an agent in a lift and pitching your book. But do listen to what they say. These are industry professionals. They know how the market works and what is selling and what is not. Ask any well thought-out question and note down the answer. Many presenters offer hand-outs, a list of key points from their session.

Take time to meet your peers and identify a potential mentor/critique partner. He or she can give you feedback on your writing and help you when your plot stalls. A good mentor will not write your book for you, but should give you constructive criticism.

Don’t be afraid to approach published authors and ask them how they did it and where they get their inspiration. Many are willing to share such information when asked politely, but again, pick your moment with care. No one wants to be cornered in the ladies room!
Avoid comparisons. Comparing your writing progress with that of other delegates serves no useful purpose and will only depress you. Remember, every published author was once like you, only dreaming of seeing their writing in print. And besides, just because someone boasts about their completed a manuscript there is no guarantee that it will be accepted for publication.

Finally, enjoy yourself. Most conferences present opportunities to socialize and make friends.

March Madness


For a limited period only you can purchase the ebook version of my novel, The House on the Shore, for 99c!

When Anna MacDonald leaves Edinburgh to find peace in the Scottish Highlands, she gets a twofold surprise: a lost sailor teaches her to love again…while a mysterious stranger has plans to kill her.

Passed over for promotion by her boss—and boyfriend, Anna walks off the job in anger. But being reactionary has its price. Now she can no longer afford the rent on her Edinburgh apartment. So she retreats to the only place she has ever felt happy – her grandmother’s croft on the edge of a Highland loch. With no phone or neighbours, and only two border collies for company, Anna sets out to finally achieve her lifelong dream; to write—and sell—the novel that has burned within her for years.

Luke Tallantyre, a renowned Cape Cod artist, has sailed across the Atlantic to escape an artistic dry spell—and come to terms with his dangerous past. When his yacht develops a problem he drops anchor in Loch Hourn. He rows ashore, and knocking on the door of the croft, asks to use the telephone, but the reception he receives is less than welcoming – in fact it’s downright frosty.

Anna resents the cranky American’s intrusion to her seemingly idyllic life. Luke thinks she’s an ill-mannered hermit. But an unseen assassin is after one of them. So they unwillingly join forces and embark on an adventure neither ever imagined…including a chance at true love.

Vacations and Presentations

While on a vacation in Florida in December, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to promote my latest novel, Ring of Lies and give a presentation to the members of the Suncoast Writers’ Guild, chaired by Edwin Ellis, the director of the Guild.

After my presentation was over I signed copies of my novels and spent time chatting to the members. As everyone was very complimentary on the content of my presentation, I’ve decided to put my notes for the event here, so that any members who couldn’t attend can have access. I hope you find it useful.


Why all books need strong protagonists.

We’ve all read books and been disappointed when the characters fail to meet the demands of the plot. My job as a novelist is to get you totally absorbed in the story from page one to such an extent that you feel as if you are standing in the corner of the room witnessing the action.

So how do we, as writers, achieve that?

The magic key is character development – the one element that can define a book as a success or a failure.

Every work of fiction needs a hero – he may be a detective in a crime novel, an astronaut battling the alien in a science fiction book, the war hero in an historical, or in the case of romantic suspense, he’s the guy the heroine finally falls in love with.

Regardless of the genre, they all have something in common. They have to be someone you, the reader, can identify with. Someone you will care about. Moreover, it’s not just the main protagonists who need to be interesting, the villains should be compelling too. Otherwise, I’m pitting tough, intelligent protagonists against stupid villains which lead to a dull, contrived plot.

The romantic hero or protagonist differs from other heroes in fiction in that he must evolve from being self centered with a closed heart to loving fully, in other words, he must learn to commit.

At one time, he was required to be single, sexy, sweet (although that might not be evident at first), smart, and of course, solvent. But tastes have changed over the years. We no longer want the classical tall, dark and handsome hero of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte. Although, that said, my heroes do fit the stereotype to a certain degree, only because I’m short and never had much luck with blond haired men.

Bonnie Tyler’s song ‘I need a hero’ sums up the modern romantic hero perfectly. He’s strong, intelligent and somewhat larger than life. Not only is he a good ‘people reader’ and able to see through everyone’s lies, he also has to be human, make mistakes and learn from them as we all do. He’s the guy we want on our side. The one who’s a little bit dangerous, the one our mother warned us about when we first started dating.

His strengths are the qualities that make the heroine and the reader fall in love with him.

But how do I create this desirable male?

Like many novelists, I write a short biography for each of my characters, other authors prefer to use a chart such as the one to be found on this website : http://www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html I include physical attributes, such as height, weight, hair and eye colour, whether they have any tattoos or scars. I also include such things as whether they had a college education, can drive and own a car, what their employment is. Some novelists I know write two or three pages on each character, but I would suggest you add as much or as little detail as you are comfortable with.

But you need to know more than your character’s background. You have to place them in conflict with each other and give them goals.

So what do I mean by goals?

The external goal is usually something simple and obvious – catch the killer or thief, solve the mystery and find the priceless antique. The villain’s goal, on the other hand, might be to exact revenge on the police officer who put him in jail or destroy the small town that shunned him. It is the external goal that drives the plot forward, and obviously, the protagonist’s goal is going to directly conflict with the antagonist’s external goal.

For example, in my latest novel, Ring of Lies, Grace Elliott’s goal is to discover her dead husband’s true identity and find out where the money to purchase the beach house on Gasparilla Island came from.

The internal goal is usually an emotional goal, hidden in the hero or heroines psyche, something which reveals an area of vulnerability. For example, a female police officer’s goal might be to catch the criminal, but her internal goal is to win the approval of her colleagues and family.

For example, in Three Weeks Last Spring, Walker’s external goal is to catch whoever is poisoning the fish in Puget Sound. His internal goal is to overcome his fear of commitment because every woman he’s ever dated has walked out on him when she learns how often he is working away from home.

Whatever the internal goal, the hero and heroine have to change and evolve during the course of the novel and become better persons through their relationship with each other.

The key is to create characters that are strong in their ideals and values, but who are prepared to listen, and if necessary change during the course of 100,000 words. After all, you don’t want to be three chapters into writing your novel only to realize you hate your characters. If you don’t like them, neither will your readers.

But internal and external goals and inner conflict isn’t the only trait characters need. To create tension and excitement, something must impede both the protagonist and antagonist achieving their goals. Without it, there is nothing to make the reader keep turning the page. Every major character must have something to lose as the book reaches the final climax.

It’s the combination of all these factors – believable characters and a realistic plot which makes a novel an enjoyable read. If I can achieve that, then I know I’ve done my job well.

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.