Monday musings: When characters surprise the writers

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Photo by Helen Haden / Flickr. Creative Commons.

Writing is a surprising art form, often for the writers themselves. Often, characters seem to come up with their own dialog, or make decisions that the writer had not planned on.

For example, Mother Tiana, a character I created late in my first novel, surprised me toward the end of The Bones of the Earth by defying the main villain with a statement about people being under spells or enchantment: “Your mind cannot be dominated unless you consent to it.”

Huh.

Other BestSelling Reads authors have had similar experiences. Here is their virtual conversation.

How have the characters you created surprised you over the years?

Raine Thomas: Even though I create detailed character sketches before I write a book, my characters love to surprise me. My character Skye, in the Daughters of Saraqael Trilogy, for example, revealed that she could teleport in the midst of me writing her book, Foretold. That completely took me by surprise, and it took the book in a wonderful new direction!

Claude Bouchard: Of the various characters in my Vigilante Series, the one who has surprised me the most is Leslie Robb, who first appeared in book five, 6 Hours 42 Minutes. Leslie, a bright, attractive, redhead of the lesbian persuasion, was an accountant employed at a bank where a heist took place. As was the case with other bank employees, hers was supposed to be a passive role, limited to that particular story.

However, Leslie turned out to have much more drive than I originally believed and pushed to the forefront to become a central character.

DelSheree Gladden: I get to know my characters as I write their story, and I’ve had many times were what I originally planned simply did not work, because my beginning idea of who is character is turns out not to be who they are at all. When writing the Date Shark Series, in book one I had a side character that was flirty, arrogant, and bit of a player. As soon as I started the second book in the series, with Guy Saint-Laurent as the main character, my entire concept of him changed. When he meets Charlotte, the connection he feels with her brings up difficult memories, reasons behind his blasé attitude about relationships and self-centered viewpoints. Those surface qualities became just that, a façade rather than his true character. What I intended to be a light and funny story turned into a deeper exploration of the hurt and pain that shapes a person.

Raine Thomas: An example of something not going as planned pertains to the end of my book, Shift (Firstborn Trilogy #2). As I neared the book’s conclusion, I realized that I had to leave a big part of the storyline as a cliffhanger leading into book three. I actually hate cliffhanger endings and couldn’t believe the characters were leading me down that path, but that’s just what they did!

Over a series of books, has the personal growth of a character surprised you in any way?

Raine Thomas: I believe (and have been told by my readers) that my writing has developed over the course of the various series I’ve written. As I’ve grown more confident in my storytelling and gotten to know my audience, my writing has tightened up and developed right along with me. While this may not be surprising to other writers, it has been a surprising, positive outcome that even applies to my life outside of writing fiction.

Claude Bouchard: By the end of 6 Hours 42 Minutes, not only had Leslie firmly made her place, she had also guaranteed herself substantial spots in future works. Since, Leslie has been a solid member of the team in each of books six to thirteen. I never saw it coming.

DelSheree Gladden: Writing Guy’s character in Shark Out Of Water (the second book in the series) taught me how important it is not to force a character into a particular box. Their story will be so much better if they’re allowed to tell it themselves.

Have your characters taught you anything?

Raine Thomas: My characters have taught me that the stories are theirs, not mine. I like to plot my novels, but every time I have, the characters have taken the story in their own direction. They’ve also inspired me, as they’re all strong and remarkable in their own ways.

Scott Bury: Many writers refer to their books as their “babies,” but it seems that the characters are the children—we create them, but then they develop minds of their own and continue to surprise, exasperate and delight us.

Claude Bouchard is based in Montreal, Canada. Two of his Vigilante novels were included in the pair of blockbuster 9 Killer Thriller anthologies, the second of which made the USA Today Bestsellers list in March 2014.

Raine Thomas is the award-winning author of bestselling young adult and new adult fiction. Known for character-driven stories that inspire the imagination, Raine has signed with multiple award-winning producer Chase Chenowith of Back Fence Productions to bring her popular Daughters of Saraqael trilogy to the big screen.

DelSheree Gladden lives in New Mexico. The Southwest is a big influence in her writing because of its culture, beauty, and mythology.

Scott Bury can’t stay in one genre—his books include historical fantasy, children’s stories, paranormal romance, thrillers, mysteries and memoir.

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Monday musings: Writing style

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I think the first time I noticed a writing style, an author’s distinctive voice, was in Grade 5 when I read “Riddles in the Dark,” where Bilbo foils Gollum in The Hobbit. Since then, I’ve always valued an enjoyable writing style, sometimes more than the story.

I can still remember another story from my elementary school days: Ray Bradbury’s “The Fog Horn.” On foggy nights, a lighthouses’ foghorn draws a dinosaur like creature out of the depths of the ocean, whose voice sounded like a foghorn, too. I can remember the emotional impact on me of Bradbury’s beautiful prose describing the sound of the creature’s call, the loneliness and unrequited love it felt when it realized the tall, deep-voiced lighthouse was not another like itself.

Later, I discovered Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, a novel that one of my teachers remarked no 15-year-old should read. Its frankly sexual content was a bit much for a teenager, but I savored the eloquent descriptions that set every sense on fire.

As a teenager, I got into science fiction and fantasy, but found the styles of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were not as appealing, anymore. I liked a lot of the work of Philip K. Dick, although I found the quality and the style uneven.

I found Larry Niven’s style in his Known Space series was an almost perfect combination of description, action and interesting characters. His Gil the ARM series was the first example I found to combine science-fiction and detective stories, and that led me to Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammet and Ross MacDonald.

What do I mean by style?

For me, style involves mechanics like sentence structure and length and the variation in that; pacing of action and speech; and word choice. But it also grows out of the author’s choice of point of view and how detailed and lengthy their description is.

As a teenager I reveled in rich descriptions. Since then my tastes have, I like to flatter myself, become more balanced. I value complex, interesting and believable characters, people who are vulnerable and flawed and not always admirable.

But most of all, I like a good story, something that takes me somewhere.

In terms of more modern writers, I like the way George RR Martin combines evocative description, dozens of captivating characters and, most of all, many interweaving stories, each of which is compelling on its own.

Toby Neal is another writer who excels by creating characters you can connect with, and putting them in a story you cannot put down. She’s also expert in describing the setting—although she has a huge advantage, living in Hawaii. I also have to mention something that I find Neal does better than any other contemporary writer in English that I have found: she writes a socially and ethnically diverse cast of characters that accurately reflects the world we live in today.

Gae-Lynn Woods’ Cass Elliot series brings a large range of subtly-drawn characters into a story so dark, I couldn’t stop reading it.

Samreen Ahsan has created a unique style by blending Islamic mythology with contemporary romance, wrapped up in lush descriptions.

Dawn Torrens’ characters, Amelia and her family, as well as her stories, are drawn from the author’s own experiences.

The late Kathleen Valentine was an original writer. One of the more unusual aspects of her style was to write romantic stories about people older than their midlives—most romance is about young people.

I’m now reading Caleb Pirtle III’s Place of Skulls, where magnificently compelling and flawed characters in a detailed, horrifying setting drive three interwoven stories. I can only put it down when forced to.

Elise Stokes, Alan McDermott, Renée Pawlish, Emily Kimelman, DelSheree Gladden, Claude Bouchard, Raine Thomas, Frederick Brooke, Seb Kirby—in fact, all the writers in this group share that ability to create unforgettable and believable characters and put them into situations where you just have to find out what happens next.

The evolution of taste

Like everything else, my taste in literature has evolved over the years. I don’t read as much science fiction or fantasy as I used to, although I still enjoy a good mystery.

But one thing hasn’t changed: I love a writer who can use original prose to bring me into the story along with, or inside, characters that fascinate me.

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How have your tastes in writing changed over time? What do you find most important in a writer’s style? Leave a comment below.

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Monday musings: Chandler had it easy

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By Scott Bury

This post is re-blogged from Scott Bury’s blog of February 15, 2016.

I’ve been re-reading Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels in a probably vain attempt to capture the mood and inspiration to write my own crime fiction, and when I compare Chandler’s prose to 21st-century mystery, thriller and crime fiction, it seems that Chandler’s challenge was less than today’s writers’—or at least, very different.

The Big Sleep was Chandler’s first full-length novel, and the first to feature the tough, cool and sarcastic private eye, Philip Marlowe. The book became a bestseller quickly, and I think part of the appeal was the titillation factor: Marlowe finds the daughter of his client drugged, sitting nude in front of a camera. In 1939, drugs and pornography were very racy stuff, stuff not talked about in polite society. So racy, in fact that in the movie version made in 1946, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, that the Carmen character was wearing a “Chinese dress.” There was no mention of pornography, and the homosexual relationship of two minor characters was completely left out.

In a time when people make their own sex videos and publish them on social media, naked pictures are no grounds for blackmail. Today, it’s almost impossible to shock or titillate an audience merely by hinting at a character’s homosexuality.

Shockers sell books

No, this is not a Nicholas Sparks “white people almost kissing” theme. This is as steamy as Hollywood got in 1946.

New writers who reach bestseller status often do so with a taboo subject. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo launched Steen Larson into international fame with its depiction of Nazis in modern society, child sexual abuse and a main character with Aspergers Syndrome. To Kill a Mockingbird wrote honestly about racism in the American South. The Virgin Suicides’ eponymous theme was something that no one wanted to talk about in the early 1990s. All these books were the first novels published by their respective authors.

The problem with shock as a literary device is it only works the first time. Writers of popular fiction have to keep upping the ante. Occasionally, I toy with the idea of writing a noir detective novel for the 21st century. Which means I would have to trawl the seedy underside of a big city and bring to light the dirtiest laundry of wealthy society, and the desperation of those clinging to the edge of their economic class.

But for shock value, it’s hard today to expose sins worse than what we read in the news: sexual abuse of children by clergy; self-proclaimed moral guardians having sex with strangers in public washrooms; institutional racism and sexism; wars being fought over made-up crimes. And of course, the biggest and most damaging sin of all: the manipulation of the economy to impoverish a once thriving middle class by transferring their wealth into fewer and fewer pockets.

How to shock?

I could probably dream up some horrible new crimes, something to surely shock or perhaps titillate an audience. Beyond the potential damage to my own psyche, I hesitate to inspire some twisted reader to emulate my fictional horrors.

And that brings up another question: should I write to shock? I write to tell stories, to present characters reacting to situations, not to horrify my readers.

Which means today’s noir writers are spending more psychic time in deeper, dirtier dungeons than ever before, writing about more damaging sins.

Raymond Chandler. Image courtesy Venture Galleries

Does the noir mystery translate to the 21stcentury? Sure. Plenty of writers have published these dark, moody mysteries with flawed characters who succumb to all sorts of temptations since 2000. But it seems to me that the crimes are grislier, the suckers more depressed, the gangsters more bloodthirsty and the femmes even more fatal.

I was right. Chandler had it easy.

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Thursday teasers: New books from your favorite #BestsellingReads authors

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Your favorite bestselling authors are hard at work, bringing you exciting new reads for your summer. Here are some new titles coming out soon.

Make It Happen

Vigilante Book 13 

By Claude Bouchard

When a brutal terrorist attack leaves hundreds dead or injured  at an airshow, it is decided those responsible must pay with their lives and the Discreet Activities team is mandated to Make it Happen… 

Coming in July from Amazon.

In Sheep’s Clothing

Sydney Rye series book 9

Sydney Rye is missing. April Madden throws herself into a quest to track down her missing daughter—in ISIS-controlled territory.

Coming September 27.

Available for pre-order now from Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

The Girl in the Window

Psychological thriller

By Renée Pawlish

In the midst of a bitter divorce, Amber longs for the seemingly perfect life his handsome neighbor Caleb and his wife Erin have. “I’d kill for that kind of life,” Amber says. But would she?

Available NOW on Amazon.

Wired Dark

Paradise Crime series, book 4

By Toby Neal

Catching a crazed stalker on Maui becomes the least of tech security specialist Sophie Ang’s problems: a deadly enemy is hell-bent to take her down along with anyone she cares about. 

Available for pre-order on Amazon. Coming August 31 to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and iBooks.

 

Smolder Road: Lucy

Scorched Series Romance Thriller book 6

By Toby Neal and Emily Kimelman

The enigmatic, stoic Roan Winters becomes a one-man army to rescue Lucy Luciano when a vicious gang attacks the Luciano family’s post-apocalyptic Haven.

Available July 21 from Amazon, other retailers soon!

 

 

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New Bestseller: The Girl in the Window

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By Renée Pawlish

Available today

The new psychological thriller from BestSelling Reads member Renée Pawlish is available TODAY from Amazon and other e-tailers.

What’s it about?

From the bestselling author of the Reed Ferguson mystery series and the Dewey Webb historical mystery series comes an enthralling story of psychological suspense.

Five days a week, Amber watches from her window as her handsome neighbor Caleb leaves for work. In the midst of a bitter divorce, Amber longs for the seemingly perfect life Caleb and his wife Erin have. “I’d kill for that kind of life,” Amber says.

But would she?

Perfect for fans of The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl.

What readers are saying:

Girl in the Window echoes psychological thrillers like Girl on the Train, which I am a true fan of. I loved the suspense Ms. Pawlish creates from a slow build to a fast paced shocking ending I didn’t see coming.” — Magnolia Belle

Get it NOW on Amazon. Coming soon to other e-tailers.

About the author

Renée Pawlish is the award-winning author of the bestselling Reed Ferguson mystery series, horror bestseller Nephilim Genesis of Evil, The Noah Winters YA Adventure series, middle-grade historical novel This War We’re InTake Five, a short story collection, and The Sallie House: Exposing the Beast Within, a nonfiction account of a haunted house investigation.

Renée has been called “a promising new voice to the comic murder mystery genre” and “a powerful storyteller.” Nephilim Genesis of Evil has been compared to Stephen King and Frank Peretti.

Renée was born in California, but has lived most of her life in Colorado.

Find more about Renée and her books on

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Monday musings: Share your summer reading list

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Summer. Forest fires and wildfires on one side of the continent, floods on the other. World conferences on terrorism and climate change.

It’s no wonder that in summer, readers like to choose lighter fare. Romances, mysteries, thrillers. At the beach or on the dock, in the backyard hammock or on the cottage porch, we’re supposed to be reading books that don’t tax our minds and souls too much. We’re supposed to be on vacation, taking things easy, enjoying the weather and the outdoors.

But is that trope really true? Sure, I remember seeing lots of mysteries held up by people on lounge chairs by the ocean. Clive Cussler, Lee Child, the awful E.L. James, David Baldacci — thrillers and romances and books that do not ask you to think too deeply. But also, I have seen people reading more serious books, like The Girl on the Train or The Couple Next Door.

Various newspapers and blogs also recommend a wider range of books, from The American War by Omar El Akkad (if that one doesn’t make you think about our modern world, I don’t know what will). And of course, The Handmaid’s Tale is playing on TV right now.

How heavy are these books?

The thing about serious books is that many of them could be classified into a genre, which some readers and critics—and writers—describe as not as serious. Not “literary.” But many genre books have also turned out to be serious, to have an impact on the culture. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road can be seen as part of the post-apocalyptic science fiction genre, but it’s a deep, meaningful story about a father and son. Margaret Atwood has written several books, including The Handmaid’s Tale, that definitely fit into the science fiction category.

Independent authors are usually seen as definitely working within genres, and from a marketing point of view, that makes sense. The romance genre, for example, by far outsells, as a whole, every other category of fiction, including “serious” literary fiction. So do mystery and action thrillers.

Blurred lines

The thing is, the high walls between genres are also breaking down. Writers are mixing up mysteries and science-fiction, thrillers and fantasy, and let’s not forget the burgeoning paranormal romance genre.

I myself like to blur the lines between genres. I have been working intermittently on a novel that combines the spy thriller with occult horror, called Dark Clouds. I have published one chapter, the introduction, as a short story. You can find it as Dark Clouds: The Mandrake Ruse.

BestSelling Reads members, independent authors, are not only skilled within their genres, but challenge the genre definitions with books that break the rules, cross genres and keep you from putting their books down before you get to the last page. Eden Baylee’s A Snake in Paradise and Charade At Sea, for example, combine mystery with adult-oriented romance. Renée Pawlish’s Reed Ferguson series moves the noir mystery into the current century, with a heaping helping of humor. Toby Neal and Emily Kimelman have teamed up with the Scorch Road series, combining the post-apocalyptic and serious romance genres. Samreen Ahsan has created a brand new genre, paranormal romances based on Muslim themes, in her Prayer series.

And there’s more.A Silent Prayer cover

Each of these books does more than combine genres: they create something new, something exciting. A new kind of adventure for the reader.

What’s on your summer reading list?

Are you sticking with the easy reads, the reiterations of the same stories, or are you on the lookout for something new, fresh and original? Share what you want to read through the hot and quiet months, and we’ll send you a free e-book.

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Thursday teaser: Unsteady Rhythm

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House of Archer Book 2

By Raine Thomas

It took Lily a moment to register the number of people lining both sides of the walkway from the base of the booth’s stairs to the tunnel leading to the green rooms.

Metal barricades had been set up to keep the people back. A couple of the venue’s security team members stood in the walkway to ensure the more eager fans didn’t attempt to scale the barriers. Lily figured the crowd was waiting for the band.

But that couldn’t be right, she thought. This wasn’t the passage leading backstage.

“Lily!” they cried. “Lily, can I have your autograph?”

“Can I get a photo, Lily?”

She tried to mask her disbelief as the fans spotted her and started shouting, holding phones, Sharpies, and all manner of things over the barricades towards her. The noise escalated the longer she stood there next to Barney without moving. She forced herself to smile.

The walkway looked endless. Anxiety had her rubbing a hand over her stomach. She saw Spence filming her from the far end of the walkway, capturing everything for the show.

“I guess I’ll be signing a few autographs?” Lily said to Barney.

She hadn’t meant for it to come out as much like a question as it did. She handed her notebook and pen to Barney.

“That isn’t a good idea,” he said. “There isn’t enough security. The venue team didn’t plan for this.”

“Neither did I,” she replied. “Just a few, okay? I can’t have people posting that I was too stuck-up to sign a couple of autographs.”

His mouth thinned in disapproval before he nodded. He followed only a foot behind her as she did her best to make her smile look more genuine and approached the first fan.

The next fifteen minutes were a blur of signing, taking photos, and shaking hands. The crowd wasn’t shy about getting right in her face, eager for her attention. Her head pounded from the strain of incessant smiling and worrying that someone might try to stab her in the eye with their pen because they thought she was going to break up The Void. It was a relief to discover that everyone seemed genuinely supportive of her and thrilled to meet her. She wasn’t sure that made this any easier.

When they were about halfway down the path, Barney brought a hand to his earpiece and moved his head to talk into the mic at his cuff. Lily glanced at him as she signed another autograph. She secretly hoped his conversation was a reason to get her out of this. She didn’t know how the band did it night after night.

In the next instant, someone hauled her off her feet.

A man’s mouth pressed against hers.

Knowing it couldn’t be Dane, she tried to struggle. Her arms were pinned to her sides. A tongue ran along the seam of her tightly sealed lips, making her want to gag. It felt like the shocking assault lasted forever.

Then she was abruptly released. She fell hard. Her left ankle twisted under her at an awkward angle that sent pain shooting up her calf. Her teeth clacked together as she hit the ground.

About Unsteady Rhythm

A rock band. A reality show. A recipe for disaster.

Falling in love with your best friend is one thing. Falling in love with a rock star is entirely another. Put those two things together, add in airing your new relationship on reality TV, and you’ve got one volatile mix just waiting to explode.

Lily Montgomery’s life has veered in a direction she never expected. She’s struggling to find her balance after her romance with rock star Dane Archer propelled her into the latest headlines. Her dreams of a successful writing career are fading in the bright lights of unwanted fame. She needs to figure out how to help Dane and his band achieve their goals without losing sight of her own.

Easier said than done…

As The Void’s tour continues, Lily faces family drama, relationship trials, dangerously dedicated fans, and zealous paparazzi. Between that and figuring out how to spin the tabloid-worthy relationship developing between the band’s brooding bassist, Keith Connors, and her conservative roommate, Sydney Ward, Lily has more weight on her shoulders than she ever imagined.

But her choice has been made. For the sake of love and her own reputation, she will have to find her rhythm and rise to each challenge. If she doesn’t, she’ll lose everything…and the whole world will be watching.

Where to get it:

About the author

Raine Thomas is the award-winning author of bestselling Young Adult and New Adult fiction. Known for character-driven stories that inspire the imagination, Raine has signed with multiple award-winning producer Chase Chenowith of Back Fence Productions to bring her popular Daughters of Saraqael trilogy to the big screen. She’s a proud indie author who is living the dream. When she isn’t writing or glued to e-mail or social networking sites, Raine can usually be found vacationing with her husband and daughter on one of Florida’s beautiful beaches or crossing the border to visit with her Canadian friends and relatives.

Where to find Raine: 

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Monday musings: Coloring in the literary map

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Photo credit: Porsche Brosseau (Creative Commons)

The beginning of July is the opening of a season of national celebrations. For writers and readers, it’s both an opportunity and a danger.

July 1 last Saturday was Canada Day, the celebration of the establishment of Confederation in British North America in 1867. Of course, tomorrow is the Fourth of July, the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The 14th is Bastille Day in France, the observance of the beginning of the French Revolution that eventually would make France into the democracy it is today.

Wikimedia Commons

Around the world, there are national celebrations coming up in July: Rwanda, Armenia, Algeria, Venezuela, Argentina, South Sudan and South Korea are just some of the countries are celebrating some kind of national, independence or some kind of national creation event.

July is a busy month for patriots.

Opportunity

For writers and readers, the annual national celebration is an opportunity to explore what it means to be a Canadian, American, French, South Sudani or whatever you are. To examine what makes your country what it is, to look at the successes and failures of the past, the opportunities and threats. To connect with fellow citizens, and to engage with others around the world.

Danger

The danger is obvious: an orgy of embarrassing boosterism, of “we’re the best,” and disrespect and rejection of other countries, cultures and ways of life. Even more dangerous is the insistence of a particular definition of a single, narrow aspect of a culture as the only legitimate one.

When this becomes the basis of a story, book or movie, it’s embarrassing. When it becomes the basis of a political movement, it’s destructive.

So what’s the solution? To me, it’s always been to broaden my view, to learn more about as many different people, countries and cultures as I can, to seek the commonality and the constructive everywhere. It’s one reason I like to travel.

Photo: Wilerson S. Andrade Creative Commons License

The previous editor of this blog, Kathleen Valentine (RIP) had a project to read a book from a different country every week or month or so. It’s a great idea, and something I have been toying with for some time.

I have read books by authors from

  • Canada (well, duh)
  • the U.S.A. (hard to avoid)
  • Mexico (completing my North American coverage)
  • the U.K. (also hard to avoid)
  • France
  • Germany
  • Columbia
  • Russia
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Australia
  • Israel
  • Yemen
  • Spain
  • Sweden

Fifteen out of 196. Not a good proportion, so I am going to start trying to expand that.

How many countries can you color in on your literary map?

What about you, readers?

If we were to color in countries on a map where BestSelling Reads member authors live, we’d have four to shade. This is something we’re working on expanding.

But what about you? How many countries can you color in on your map of literary exploration?

Share in a Comment.

 

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Monday musings: Travel and inspiration

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“Where do you get your ideas from?” Cecily Pigeon (or maybe it was Gwendolyn) asked Felix Unger in Neil Simon’s play, The Odd Couple.

It’s a question every writer gets. While Felix, who wrote news for TV, could answer “From the news!” for fiction writers, it’s more complicated—and, I think, more fun.

There are any number of things that can spark an idea for a creative writer of fiction—or even non-fiction. Sights, sounds, smells, stories, experiences; the way a shadow moves over a wall as a car’s headlights sweep past; the way a friend hesitates before answering a question; the shouts of spectators at a football game; even the way clouds move across a darkening sky.

I just returned from a trip to the Czech Republic, where so many sights, sounds and experiences sparked ideas for different types of stories, I could barely write them down fast enough to remember them. In fact, I’m certain I’ve forgotten a lot.

Have you ever done that writing exercise, where you base a story on a picture? Here are a few images that can prove evocative.

This is an old palace in the Moravian town of Telc. Castles and palaces are easy. What does it make you think of? A story about a princess and a cruel king in medieval times? How about lost treasure buried deep in hidden passages, or a horrible family secret?

Here’s a picture taken from the plane on the way back. Those are the mountains of Greenland—yes, Greenland! This can evoke stories of lost explorers, or refugees fleeing persecution in a warm climate. How about a story about climate change? Reach deeper: the relationship between humanity and the infinite.

Here’s a shot of street performers in Prague. What story would you write about this? What if I told you they were playing “Stairway to Heaven”?

A new story

My favourite story idea from this trip to Prague came like pulling on the tiny end of a thin thread. You know how it is: First, the bit of thread you can reach is so short, you can barely grasp it. Pulling on it is as likely to make it slip from between your fingers as to pull it longer, but bit by bit, you get a better grip. Then it comes out, faster and faster, fuller and fuller.

I had an idea like that after attending a “black light” performance, a uniquely Prague form of entertainment. Not so much ideas of events or characters came from that, but more a feeling that Prague evoked in me: a city that at the same time presents mystical, almost magical impressions, as well as a long tradition of modernism and commitment to science, rationality, humanism and science.

What about you? What inspires ideas for stories in your mind? Do you have a picture you’d like to send to your favourite author to see what they might come up with? Leave a Comment.

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Seven characteristics of successful #writers that cannot be taught

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By Toby Neal

This post originally appeared on Toby Neal’s blog on September 21, 2016.

Seven characteristics of successful writers cannot be taught—but they can be learned and developed until they become the habits that are the bedrock of a successful artist practice in any field.

  • The successful writer is a keen observer of everything around him. Writers notice things: the way a closet smells of cedar, mothballs, and the unique stench of crumbling old photographs. They see the gilt hairs on a centipede, the gleam of a lost marble in the grass. They feel the chill of dried sweat on the inside of a parka—and everything, simply everything, is something that might be useful for story.
  • The successful writer is dangerously curious. Curiosity is a quality that cannot be faked or taught—but it can be cultivated. Curiosity drives the questioning mind to relentlessly ask: what if? Why? How does this work? Seeking answers is the stuff of story, legend, art and invention—and while not every question may be of interest, an inquiring mind can be nurtured (particularly in children. But that’s a topic for another day.)
  • The successful writer has talent plus passion. Talent cannot be faked. Some people just have an innate adeptness with words, with paint, with a musical instrument—they perform in their area of passion easily, gracefully, naturally. But those who succeed don’t just have talent—they can’t NOT do their art. Oh, the stories I could tell on this one. My early ambition to be a writer was actually crushed by the careless comment of an adult I respected at a party before I left for college. “What? You want to be a writer? You’ll never make a living doing that.” I was forty before I began to really put that all-to-common sound bite behind me, and for a while I grieved for all the time lost. Eventually, though, I could see all the ways that I was writing all of my life, and none of it was wasted. Even when a creative’s sublimating, their passion oozes out in that church newsletter, that nursery mural, that ditty on the trash can at the bus stop. They must, and they will, come what may—and eventually the universe shapes itself to support that unyielding passion.
  • The successful writer learns from criticism (but never gives up.) Rejection is inherent to any creative enterprise. As my editor Kristin Weber said, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.” Creative fields are also filled with what Julia Cameron, in her groundbreaking The Artist’s Way, calls “shadow artists.” These are blocked creatives, who, instead of doing their own art, have instead become the tastemakers, the critics, the professors and teachers, the reviewers. That’s not to say everyone in these roles is a shadow artist—no, far from it! But you’ll know the shadow artist by the brutality and cruelty of their attack, the mean-spirited belittlement of their judginess. They cannot hide their bitter jealousy, and its toxic venom burns the tender young artist. Put on your armor, take your hits—and be humble. Learn from the criticism, do that next edit, go the extra mile to perfect the work with grace and thanks—but never let anyone’s bad review make you give up.
  • The successful writer is not afraid to be alone. Art is, and writing particularly, a solitary pursuit. Even co-writing, which I’m doing now, is still me on my side of the world writing my words alone, and my co-author on hers writing her words, both of us dumping them into a shared story (alone) and then trying to make it all hang together (which can definitely be harder than working alone!) A taste for one’s own company is very much a characteristic of the successful writer. You can learn to do this by taking small retreats and learning to sit with the silence, learning to build an inner self sufficiency—and the writing or other art will deepen as a result.

    My work area, surrounded by special objects.

  • The successful writer focuses and finishes. It’s not enough to flit through life, beginning novels, getting forty pages in, and abandoning them out of boredom (as I did.) It takes commitment to focus, persist, follow the rabbit-trail of an idea, capture and nurture it, weed, water and feed it, trim, groom, and harvest the fruit of it—even if that particular novel ends up in a drawer, becoming fertilizer for the next one. Focusing and finishing are important habits that separate the wannabes from the doing-its. Learn to focus and finish, even if it doesn’t come naturally—there are apps, books, techniques available. (Look up Pomodoro Method, and the book Steal Like an Artistby Austin Kleon, for ideas.)
  • The successful writer is persistent. The single greatest characteristic needed for success in any creative field is persistence. It can make up for a multitude of sins, including lack of talent, having no ideas, being a sellout, an idiot, a messed-up neurotic with a mental health disorder, a drunk or a dilettante. If you refuse to give up, and just keep coming to the page day after day after day, you will improve. You will succeed in becoming the best writer you can be.

As I write this, I am on vacation in the wilds of British Columbia, a location I chose because of its optimal writing opportunities and with which my family cooperated because they love nature too, and fishing, and trees and eagles and the sound of the tide turning. But today I am happily alone, delighted with the idea of a long stretch of uninterrupted writing before me, and amazed that its my writing paying for it all. I wish I’d known thirty years ago what I know now, and share with you freely. But only you can believe in yourself and your passion enough to make room for it to flourish. I hope you will.

Toby Neal was raised on Kauai in Hawaii and makes the Islands home after living elsewhere for “stretches of exile” to pursue education. Toby enjoys outdoor activities including bodyboarding, scuba diving, photography and hiking as well as writing. A mental health therapist, Toby credits that career with adding depth to the characters in the LeiCrime Series.

Get to know Toby on her:

And follow her on Twitter @TobywNeal.

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