Archive | June 2012

Throwing the Reader into the Deep…

SeaThere’s a recent trend in the contest I’ve been judging, and not a good one. And I think the confusion comes from the idea that you want to open fast and with action. This can be a good thing…or very, very bad.

First, let’s look at some wrong ways to open a book with a fast pace.

Action that’s just action for the sake of the characters doing something does not help your readers. The opening needs to set reader expectations about the tone of the book—so just action ends up giving the reader a mistaken idea about the book. Much better to open with your main character in a scene where something key about the character is show—and even better to have the action relate to the main plot.

Characters piled into the first few pages is another way to confuse readers and make it hard to get into the story. This is like walking into a party where you don’t know anyone—you tend to want to walk out again. Start with main characters and ease the reader into introductions.

Setting skipped past is yet another way to leave readers wondering about the story. This one is easy to if you’re busy with just a fast-paced happenings—but the reader has to known where and when the scene (and the book) starts. What’s the time of day, is the weather cold or hot, and the world like? The reader needs a little time to settle into the scene and the book. Every book needs this, but this is vital with historical, paranormal romances, or any book with an other-world setting.

Danger is often put into the first page and that can work, but only if the reader cares about what’s going on. A better way to think of this is that conflict and tension do not have to be instantly dialed up to ten—an opening scene with something as simple as a child’s lost shoe can involve the reader in the story if you first take the time to establish characters the reader can care about.

Dialogue can lead to a good or bad opening—this one can be tricky. You might have a great line—but if it feels stuffed into the opening, it’s not going to work. I’ve seen scenes that were obviously twisted to try and fit some clever dialogue into the opening. Instead, the scene came out stiff and as if it didn’t belong with the rest of the book.

Backstory, if laid in too heavy, is also going to kill your opening. The thing to remember here is that if you’re going back in time to put in stuff that happened in the past, you are not moving the present story forward. This is where you have to find the balance between weaving in enough information to keep everything clear and understandable, but not so much that you give the reader huge chunks of the past. Keep it to a sentence here and there. Not paragraphs. (Unless, of course, they are utterly brilliant paragraphs—and do not lie to yourself and tell yourself they are brilliant when they are not.)

Those are the main ways to do it wrong. How do you put in an opening that grabs the reader?

We all know these openings when we read them. Go out and read them. Take them apart and see how others do this. Dick Francis, the mystery writer, is a master of the fast opening that sets up the world and gives you an immediate likeable, sympathetic character. Nora Roberts is another writer who always starts her stories at the right place. When you find writers who give you great openings, don’t just read the rest of the book. Stop, take the writing apart. Look at the descriptions, the balance of narrative to scene (telling to showing), look at the viewpoint control, the words used, the sentence structures, the metaphors. Then look at your own work. Are you applying the same techniques? (Techniques, not same word—your writing will come across as stale if you try and put in sentences and phrases already used by others.)

Most of all, keep in mind the question—are you leading your reader by the hand into a nice swimming hole. Or are you pushing them into the deep end without so much as a lifeline? No one likes to be shoved into something, least of all a reader. Introduce your characters to your readers. Set the stage. Make the world come to life with just enough of the right descriptions (the ones that matter most to the story and the characters). Readers everywhere will thank you.

Stop. Look. Listen

Summer comes early to where we live in New Mexico—and when the warm weather shows up you want to get out into it (meaning the time at the computer writing can suffer). But my goal is to get my pages done early—except when I can’t. Life happens, of course. And sometimes the story stalls out. But that’s not writer’s block. It means something’s wrong.

The phrase I was taught as a kid was that at road crossings: stop, look, listen. Well, when the story stops, I’ve found it’s wise to apply the look and listen. While I don’t believe in writer’s block, I do believe the subconscious is always at work—and sometimes it hits you upside the head to get your attention. The reasons for the stop?

1 – Wrong viewpoint. If you’re in the wrong character’s viewpoint you’re not getting the most emotional bang from a scene, that’s a great reason for the subconscious to rebel and stop the action. A viewpoint switch is the first fix I apply and most of the time that’s the fix needed to get the flow going again.

2 – No conflict (or I don’t really understand the conflict). These are scenes that ramble along until you want to put a bullet in them. The fix here is to ask if you really understand what each character wants in that scene—and what’s stopping each character from getting that want. (This one also impacts dialogue—as in you do not want characters speaking too much to the point, but if you don’t know what the point is, the dialogue is going to wander along with the scene.)

3 – Breaking at the wrong point. I try to stop every writing session in the middle of a scene and the middle of a sentence, right where I know what the next words are going to be. This means I’ve primed the start of the next writing session. Every time I break at the end of a sentence—or worse, the end of a chapter break—it’s hard to get back into the scene. Because I’m into a new scene. I’ve learned to use tricks to get my head back into the story and stopping when the writing is still hot is a good one.

4 – Introduction of a new character—and you’re not sure of the personality or voice. Some characters are gems—they show up knowing their lines, and walk onto the page ready to steal the story. Some characters are shy and it takes chapters before you hit on their voice and their core issues. I’ve learned that whenever a new character comes into a story, it’s a trip time for the writing. Knowing this means I’m ready to deal with it—tensing up and fighting the stop is a great way to keep it around for a long time.

When you hit one of these stop points, look at the pages. Are you in the wrong character’s head, do you know the conflict. And listen to your characters—are they telling you you’ve got the conflict wrong, do you have that character’s voice showing up in dialogue. Reade your work aloud and listen to it–that may show you what’s wrong.

If you stopped writing at a chapter end (or a sentence end), go back and edit a couple of pages to help you pick up the scene.

Listen, too, to what your writer instincts are telling you—the stop may be because a setup you have three chapters earlier isn’t going to work. Or maybe you forgot a key line and motivation in the opening of the story and if it’s not there, the scene you’re working on is dead.

A stop is not a stop if you turn it to your advantage. And take advantage of the summer days, too—sometimes a long walk is just what you need to get your subconscious to tell you why it stop the show.

This entry was posted on June 18, 2012, in Uncategorized. Leave a comment

Susan Squires Guest Blog: Set the Stage – Part II

Do You Believe in Magic?Today Susan Squires Guest Blog Part II on Settings, with examples from her own work….

Susan Squires is New York Times bestselling author known for breaking the rules of romance writing. She has won multiple contests for published novels and reviewer’s choice awards. Publisher’s Weekly named Body Electric one of the most influential mass market books of 2003 and One with the Shadows, the fifth in her vampire Companion Series, a Best book of 2007. Her latest book is Do You Believe in Magic? which is available in print or as an ebook.

Susan has a Masters in English literature from UCLA and once toiled as an executive for a Fortune 500 company. Now she lives at the beach in Southern California with her husband, Harry, a writer of supernatural thrillers, and three very active Belgian Sheepdogs, who like to help by putting their chins on the keyboarddddddddddddddddd.

And now let’s hear from Susan:


As an exercise, look at your current work in progress to be sure that every setting has at least some description. Then ask yourself, “Have I used the most telling details, ones that not only describe my setting, but my theme or my character?” Then continue with the question, “Do I need all this description for my reader to get the idea I’m trying to convey?” That’s a good place to start.

Now, I still struggle with this every day. Here are a couple of examples from my latest book, Do You Believe In Magic?, the first in my Children of Merlin series about the big and very successful Tremaine family who are descended from the wizard of Camelot. Each sibling will come into a magic power when they meet and fall in love with another who carries the Merlin gene. This first book is about Tris, the bad boy brother who doesn’t believe in his destiny. He certainly never suspects that he’s met his future in the middle of Nevada in the person of one Maggie O’Brian, a spitfire little rodeo rider.

First, a light description that introduces Maggie and Tris, in Maggie’s point of view, in the second scene of the book. We won’t be back to the diner, but her truck and Tris’s bike tell us a lot about them.

It was a hundred miles into Fallon. She’d been so anxious to get away, she hadn’t eaten breakfast. Since she was flush, at least for a minute, she decided to stoke up on some of Jake’s steak and eggs. Maggie O’Brian’s rig clattered into the dirt parking lot next to the diner. The four-horse trailer was one of those old iron slat jobs where the horses were tied in at an angle. It made a God-awful racket when it was empty. Truck wasn’t exactly new either. Ford F250, vintage 1970. But the big 390 diesel did the job. You couldn’t see much of the faded red paint under all the dust anyway, so the dings and dents didn’t matter.

She climbed out of the cab. A kick-ass black Harley with minimum chrome and scarred leather saddlebags leaned on its stand in front of the diner windows, no doubt so the owner could keep an eye on it. Covered with road grit and sporting a couple of dings itself, it wasn’t a Sunday afternoon ride for some rich Hell’s Angel wannabe. That bike had seen action. Maggie pulled open the ancient screen door, the smell of grease and fried pork product wafting over her.

The only people in the diner at this hour were usually locals. It was too early for tourists in the “living ghost town,” of Austin, Nevada. The counter was filled with single old guys, leaving only one empty seat next to a really broad-shouldered man. He was the youngest guy in the diner by probably forty years. She didn’t recognize him. He must be the owner of the cycle. His black leather jacket was slung over the low back of the barstool, leaving a faded blue work shirt, longish black hair, and some three-day stubble the only things she could see.

This, on the other hand, is a major description of the Maggie’s house as the Tris sees it for the first time. The house will be the setting for a climactic scene later in the book and it says something about Maggie, so I took some time with the description. The old rusted truck, the propane tank and the windmill will all be important to the story. Could I have cut it? As I read over it, I think maybe so. We all just keep trying to find the right balance.

A motel actually seemed like a safe haven. Tris couldn’t imagine spending the night under the same roof with Maggie and her father. Or rather he could. He could imagine what she’d wear to bed. Probably a tee shirt. And nothing else. He could imagine hearing her undressing in another room. He could see her slim, muscled rider’s legs and imagine them wrapped around his hips…. Shit. Apparently he’d gone from not giving a damn about women at all, straight to what probably amounted to addiction. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.

Her father would kill him if he saw the hungry look in Tris’s eyes.

He chewed the inside of his lip as she turned the truck down an unpaved road, really just two tire tracks in the sandy dirt where the mountains flattened out into desert. The tracks wound through a dry streambed that would have to be forded in the rain. In the distance a clump of feathery gray-green Palo Verde trees clustered around a weathered house with a corrugated iron roof and a sagging front porch. The whole shack seemed about to disappear into the gray and brown colors around it. The roof barely supported a TV satellite dish. A white propane tank that looked like a Tylenol pill settled out a ways from the house and a windmill towered behind it, blades spinning lazily in the desert wind. That well must be their source of water way out here. A pickup, circa ’48, more rust than metal, sat on blocks next to a late ’70s station wagon with peeling white paint. No yard. But he could see a lean-to full of hay bales out back and some pipe corrals with horses milling around in them, peering over the rail toward the approaching truck. He recognized the mustangs he’d watched her gentle but there were others too, less rough looking. As they got closer, he realized the horses were much tidier than when he’d last seen them. The lean-to was freshly whitewashed and the water barrels in the corrals were painted a bright blue-green in contrast to their desert surroundings.

Someone took care of the horse part of the property—the house, not so much.

He caught himself wondering what his family would think of a girl who came from a house like this. Sere and hard. That’s what her life must be like.

Her mouth was set in a grim line as she pulled up behind the station wagon. She cut the engine. Staring straight ahead, she said, “Don’t pay attention to Elroy. You’re my guest here.”

“Okay.” He hoped that word wasn’t loaded with the dread he felt. He tried not to let in an ounce of judgment either. He had no right. But he saw why she wanted to be on the road.

To read more about Tris and Maggie, and learn about Susan, visit

Susan Squires Guest Blog: Set the Stage, Part 1

Bestselling author Susan Squires is guest blogging today on settings.

Susan SquiresIn addition to being a New York Times bestseller, Susan is known for breaking the rules of romance writing. She has won multiple contests for published novels and reviewer’s choice awards. Publisher’s Weekly named Body Electric one of the most influential mass market books of 2003 and One with the Shadows, the fifth in her vampire Companion Series, a Best book of 2007.

Susan has a Masters in English literature from UCLA and once toiled as an executive for a Fortune 500 company. Now she lives at the beach in Southern California with her husband, Harry, a writer of supernatural thrillers, and three very active Belgian Sheepdogs, who like to help by putting their chins on the keyboarddddddddddddddddd.

And now over to Susan (and the Belgians)….


Learning to write good settings for your stories can serve two purposes. Setting the scene of the novel helps draw the reader into the book immediately, giving them time and motivation to connect to the characters. Setting makes them feel as if they’ve “gone to another place.” Readers love to be carried away. And if you can connect the setting to the characters, you deepen the reader’s understanding of them, also increasing reader satisfaction. So–setting the scene well is a good thing, no matter what kind of books you write.

First, I admit that description is scary. How much do you describe? How do you know you have described your setting in a manner that will engage the reader? In the end, there are no single right answers to these questions. But I can share a few tricks of the trade I’ve learned along the way.

The concept of using “telling detail” has helped me immensely. First decide what the milieu of the scene will be. Is this midnight in a circle of standing stones? A sumptuous Italian palace in the early nineteenth century? The cubicle farm of a giant technology company? I’ve used all of those. Put yourself there in your imagination. Look around. Listen. Take a whiff. Feel the effect the setting has on your body. Take a moment to really understand what it would be like to stand there.

Okay, got it? Now comes the hard part. If you really described all that, the reader would be snoozing. So pick the important details. What’s important? Well, it’s what tells your reader most about the setting itself, the characters, and about what you want them to get from the story. Do you want the jungle in the Caribbean to be dangerous? Then make it night. The air is so heavy with heat and humidity that your characters can hardly breathe. A reptile of some kind always represents danger for me, or describe noises your protagonist can’t identify. What if you’re describing a small town main street in a contemporary setting? Well, what role will the town play? Is the town poor and your character is aching to get out? Is your town a symbol of the simpler times the characters never want to leave? Those decisions will tell you what details to include.

It goes without saying that you try to involve as many senses as you can. That draws your reader into the milieu whether they want to come or not! You don’t have to mechanically tick off inserting every sense into every description. Pick the senses that will most evoke your story and use them.

Now let’s talk about how settings are related to your characters. The description is either from a character’s point of view, or if you don’t specify, by default it’s from the author’s point of view. The author talking, (omniscient POV) makes the reader feel like she’s watching the scene, not living it. While this was common in novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it’s no longer enough to keep readers reading. Hook your description to a particular character’s POV.

How do you do that? Well, you’ve experienced your setting in your own imagination. Now think about how your character would think about those details, based on who he is, his background and his most recent experiences. How does that change the description? Is the person in your Caribbean jungle a fearful young girl who knows nothing about nature? Is he an ex-military man trained in survival? These two characters would experience the setting differently, and HOW they experience it will tell us something about them. This can be an exciting way to introduce hints at a character’s background and personal characteristics, too.

New writers often make the mistake of piling on the descriptors, thinking it makes their settings more evocative. Nouns are not carefully chosen, every noun has an adjective (or two or three) and multiple clauses say basically the same thing in different ways. This just makes the prose heavy going for the reader. It’s much more effective to choose the right noun and add adjectives sparingly, so they stand out in the reader’s mind. Don’t worry about this in the first draft–just write. But when you go back and revise, cut out the excess. You’ll never believe what a difference it makes in your prose.

Not every setting needs the same detail either. A setting that’s important to your character, or one where much of the action occurs, should have a fair bit of description devoted to it. But if the setting is used only in a single scene and it’s not important to any of the characters, an evocative word or phrase will do.

Do you have to do the description of setting all at once in a big paragraph? Absolutely not. It’s better, in fact, to layer it in. But be sure to start with a little bit of description to ground the reader. I’ve read many contest entries that do a wonderful job with setting, but only get to it three-quarters of the way through the scene. Meanwhile the reader has been wondering, where are these people? Annoying, even if the annoyance is subconscious. You never want to produce a subconsciously annoyed reader.

In conclusion, descriptions don’t have to slow your story down. They can be satisfying in themselves. Choose only a few telling details. Describe the setting through a character’s eyes. And take the time to find the right nouns and a few right adjectives.


Check back Wednesday for Part II with some exercises and examples on better settings. To find more out about Susan, visit