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DON’T KILL THE DOG and 14 other unwritten rules of fiction

Dear Up-and-Coming Author,

If you take your craft seriously (and I’m sure you do), you know the rules of grammar and the three acts of storytelling. You know how to craft a character and heighten tension. You likely also know how to add “hooks” so that societies full of nurses and Weimaraner owners will find your opus through search engines.

dead dogAs a public service, I hereby list the also crucial, but often unwritten, rules of fiction writing.

1) Don’t kill the dog.  You can kill the grandmother by inches or boil the baby, but if you kill the dog, readers will fling your book across the room (or their e-reader, which will break, causing them to blame you even more) and never buy or borrow another thing you’ve written. They will also badmouth you on all social media sites.

2)  Don’t kill Ned Stark or any other main protagonist who does the ethical heavy-lifting (at least, not until the end of the ned stark closebook). George R.R. Martin can get away with it. You can’t.

3) If your fan fiction begins to seriously go viral, hire a copy editor at once.

4)  Hope that your first novel won’t become a bestseller. (You’ll thank me later.)

5)  Have a room of your own where you can go to write, and where you really DO write. This room can be a coffee shop or library or a poorly lit basement. It will likely have to be somewhere out of the trajectory of your normal life, and hopefully will not have wifi.

6)  Play well with others. In this profession, as in all others, what goes around, comes around.

7)  Do not sleep with crazy people “for research.”  In fact, the list of things not to do for research is pretty long.

8)  Do not use the proper name of a beloved deity as a curse. You can justify it in many artistic and character ways, but it will hurt readers in ways you do not intend and will pull them out of the story. Even if you are profane with glee in real life, try to be more creative in type.

9)  Never underestimate the value of a cat or dog at your feet while you are writing. They make the best company and never make an inappropriate comment.

10) Do not blame your family for being hungry/wanting to see you.  You’ll eventually have to build this in.

11)  Never dis another writer in print or on social media. You may think of it as momentary amusing snark, but it NEVER GOES AWAY.*     * This does not apply if you are Lee Child talking to PLAYBOY, in which case you may say anything you damn well please and every writer on the planet will look at you with awe.

12) Realize you are writing because you love it and not because it will make you rich. Do not pre-order furniture.

13)  Come up with a great “I finished a book!” celebratory ritual. I finished my first book in 7th grade, at which time a banana split was the world’s greatest extravagance. Diana Gabaldon buys a new set of towels. That is probably more sustainable.

14)  Most important:  keep a sense of humor. It is your lifeline.

15)  Do not spend your time and creative energy writing or reading blogs when you should be writing your novel.

That being said, good blogs are often inspirational! Here are two writers to check out:

Laura Benedict’s Blog  “Time to Go Pro”

Meredith Cole’s blog “I’m Still Writing”

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5 Sexiest Male Characters in Modern Fiction (A Thinking Woman’s Guide)

Okay, I realize that what constitutes sexiness is a very personal thing. Could be you’re a curvy size 0 with a name like Tapathis Nau with no fear of disease or desire for commitment and Bond, James Bond, is right up your alley. God bless, you’ll get no tussle from this quarter. All yours.

For some of us, what makes a character attractive is a more robust mix of attributes. I’ll admit my top, in real life, is nobility of spirit. Courage, commitment and caring are right up there. Talent seasons everything. But something’s different on the page. In literary life, I like my heroes unattainable. Someone who is so heroic, he has too much on his mind to fool around with this silly little thing called love.

EXCEPT when he falls, for one singular woman, he falls HARD.  And we all know, were we ourselves fictional and he’d only met us first, it could have been…one for the ages.

So.  Here’s my short list.  These are presented with the hope you will share your list with me.

 

Ari Ben CanaanAri Ben Canaan.  This is where it all began for me. Politics aside, in Leon Uris’ book Exodus, there was a character so selfless, so courageous and so heroic, I was instantly in love. Ari exuded nobility of spirit, and I knew immediately that was not only the kind of fellow I wanted to marry, it was the kind of fellow I wanted to become. Even Paul Newman, bless his heart, did not capture the full essence of the Ari who was on the page.

 

Merlin CC coverAmbrosius. Yes, the Crystal Cave is about Arthur, and Merlin and (very notably) Uther Pendragon. But Mary Stewart presents Ambrosius is the prince that rises above all of them to repel invaders at the wall, live in a just way, temper his hotblooded brother Uther, and basically sew the seeds of the beginning of Great Britain and what would become the Round Table. He was also celibate…well, except for this one princess with whom he was still (secretly) in love, and the child they’d had together…

Gregory Pech as Atticus FinchAtticus Finch.  Need I say more?  To Kill A Mockingbird is narratred  by his young daughter, so the sexy isn’t front and center. But Atticus had a wife, obviously loved her, and could sure use help with some world-changing. If you ask me. Moral integrity and quiet courage are in as short supply today as they ever were. 

 

Jamie Fraser. Oh, Diana Gabaldon. In Outlander, she created that most illusive of characters, the courageous, OUT-102_20131106_EM-1710.jpgheroic, sexy man who finds his soulmate and stays true to her while continuing to have really really sexy conjugal relations. Yes, it involves time travel and the Scottish highlands. And yes, it is finally being made into a series by Starz. Whether Jamie will remain the well-spanked, well-built Scotsman who swaggered onto the pages of Outlander remains to be seen.

Mrs. MikeSergeant Mike Flannigan. Of the Canadian Mounted Police.  When 16-year-old Bostonian meets her Canadian sergeant with “eyes so blue you could swim in them” in 1907, a love story with a man and a wilderness was born. Mrs. Mike is not only a love story, but a story of a marriage and how love deepens and grows through hardship and wonder.

 

Yani. So it should come as no surprise to readers of the Eden Thrillers that our heroine Jaime Richards has a thing for men who have nobility of spirit. As she says in the upcoming Plagues of Eden, “For many years of her life, Jaime had assumed she would never get married. Not that she had anything against marriage, but she tended to fall for knight-errant types who were too busy slaying dragons to consider applying for a mortgage.” In other words, Jaime is me (and B.K.) in this regard. Bar set pretty darn high.Yani

So in Chasing Eden, she meets this mysterious man who kidnaps her in the ruins of Ur, enlists her help to recover a lost sword, and runs her through the ruins of Babylon, where she’s kidnapped once again. But before the story is over, he has also cared for and saved a terrified young boy who is bleeding to death, and an elderly man who is being pursued by the baddest of the bad. Now that I think about it, Yani is kind of Ari meets Jamie meets Atticus and Ambrosius. Mostly the first two. But did we succeed in creating a sexy thinking woman’s hero?

Let us know. And let me know who YOUR nominees are for sexiest hero!

Uris_Exodus-lowresMockingbird coverThe Crystal CaveOutlanderChasingEden_audio-cover

 

 

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Real life. Technically, the blog about the literary heroes is over and you’re free to go. But this all got me started about the fact that, sure enough, in real life, I really have always been a sucker for nobility of spirit. In fact, I remember reading the book A Man Called Peter as a girl, and bursting into tears at the end. Not because the courageous Scottish preacher died, but, as I cried to my father, “What if I can’t find a man like Peter Marshall or you to marry? Statistically, there just aren’t enough to go around!”

So, the fact is that I also appreciate real life heroes and nobility of spirit. It’s why I spent two years talking to Holocaust survivors and family and friends of Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish architect who saved over 100,000 Jews from Hungary at the end of World War II.

man called peter

 

Raoul_Wallenberg_Cover-330

 

 

 

It’s probably why I’m married to Bob Scott, who is currently planning CREATING COMMON GOOD. A Practical Conference on Economic Equality, a conference with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Cornell West, Barbara Ehrenreich, Rachel Held Evans and others, next January.  And why I’m so proud to visit my dad, on whom Peter Marshall had nothing, and who goes to dinner at his retirement community as “God’s secret agent,” sitting with different folks each night, just seeing where he can listen and bring healing. It’s probably why my co-authors are Chaplain (COL) B.K. Sherer, who cares about each and every soldier and cadet under her care.  Oh, and Axel Avian who truly believes that every kid (and grown up) can change the world.  How that has happened, I really can’t tell you, except that I am blessed indeed.

 

 

Sometimes, Being a Writer Sucks

This is a post I never really planned to write. But the lovely Brie, Arundel’s marketing person,  wants me to start blogging more, and I figure the only way to do it, really, is to tell the truth.

I have a lot of writer friends on social media, and they all seem to be having a swell time. Writing, and kvetching about writing, their books being “blurbed” by major players and being nominated for awards, and they themselves posting selfies while being flown to book conferences all over the globe with their equally exuberant friends of letters. Usually, they are also raising half a dozen children, coaching Little League, and visiting their offspring at Ivy League schools when they’re on break. They also write posts about how they used to only be able to write 30,000 words a day, but now, thanks to wonderful secret algorithms, they’re up to 50,000.

If they’re traditionally published, they lunch with all their well-known peers in NYC; or, if they are now self-published after a successful run in traditional publishing, they’re pulling in hundreds of times their former take because now they get to keep the dough for themselves.

They often also appear on Good Morning, America or jet off to Italy on vacation.

In case people look at the glossy finish of social media and think my writing life is anything like that, I’d like to set the record straight.

Sometimes, being a writer sucks.

The first problem is, I’m never as good as I want to be. There’s a paradigm in my head of the story I’m telling, the book I’m writing, and as hard as I try, I seldom achieve it. I am also writing this post at the particular moment in time because we’re inching towards the finish line on the next Eden thriller, and it’s 85 percent there. Which is a depressing number. The lifeblood and brilliance and paths of engagement with the reader are in that last 15 percent, and, as of now, I don’t know how to get there.

The good news is, it isn’t just this book. It happens in every single novel I write. So I know it is possible to make that last climb, if not to the 100% mark, at least into the 90s. It often has to do with knowledgeable editors showing you which strings to pull to tighten everything into line.

But right now, I’m thinking, even if the plot is pulled into line, I’m not happy with the writing, the characters, the vocabulary, the process. I should know better by now. I should be better by now.

[Famous graph on the creative process:

1. This is awesome

2. This is tricky

3.  This is sh**

4.  I am sh**

5. This might be Okay

6. This is awesome. ]

 

So maybe I’m just transitioning between numbers three and four of the above chart (which was posted on FB by the inimitable composer Skip Kennon) at the moment.

Maybe I’m still sloughing off a surprising and very unprofessional bout with a formerly trusted editor who sort of had a meltdown that had nothing to do with us or our book but was still weird and hurtful and required getting past. Honestly, this happens to everyone in the arts. What many people don’t know is that, no matter how many times you’re published or produced, you are acutely vulnerable when it comes to your art. This is true for artists who give it their all in the quiet of their rooms, and no one ever sees their work, as it is for those who publish constantly.

Then, there is the fact that you’re never truly “off.”  I wake up at 4 a.m. and know I should spend the awake time figuring out what’s going on in my latest project. And I drive my husband to the bus at 5:30 a.m. and know I need to come home to write. I’m trying hard to learn how to complete deadlines and not feel guilty for missing time with my family and friends. I am learning to enjoy the precious time with them, even if I hear the tick tick tick of deadlines, like Captain Hook’s crocodile, behind me.

You’d think I’d have this all figured out by now.

You’d think I’d figure out how to have time left over to clean my house.

But, even writing this, I know how truly lucky I am.

I have the world’s best co-authors and editors and publishing pros and marketing folks around me. Some of the coolest people in the world (and I’m counting YOU) have read some of my books and enjoyed them.

Cause, when it comes right down to it, what I love is the work of writing. It’s hard and irritating, but I get to spend months and years with characters I love going to places all around the world (at least in my mind) and learning all kinds of cool stuff I’d never ever know otherwise. I know how many stories there are at the Eiffel Tower and truly bizarre stuff about wine making. I can describe, in detail, vineyards in China, discuss inheritance laws in France, and parks and cafes in Argentina. I know how to get up to the top of the bell tower of Cadet Chapel at West Point (okay, I’d probably know that anyway).

In any case, I can’t leave Jaime and Yani and Mark Shepard at 85%. Can’t do it. Will fight through this one more time and make it out the other side. You’ll have to decide for yourself if we made it into the 90s or not.

But just so you know, when you read chipper posts about new Audio books (way cool) and and blog tours and book signings–well, it isn’t all a heady rush of achievement. In fact, it hardly ever is. But we often pretend for the lovely folks in marketing. So, Brie, this one’s for you.

xo Sharon

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