Thinking Theme, The Final Chapter

After a few diversions, I’m back to the topic of theme. This is the subject of my next Red Sneaker book, so if there are any aspects I haven’t covered, or anything you’d like me to address, please let me know. And I’m still interesting in hearing title possibilities…

Here’s what I’ve covered so far, in brief. Theme isn’t about thumping people over the head with your political, religious, or spiritual beliefs. At best, it’s putting a topic up for discussion–basically saying, here’s something important we ought to think about.

Some writers handle theme more subtly than others. People like Brad Thor and the late Vince Flynn have found success in thrillers with a hardline conservative bent, typically portraying the Middle East as a dire threat to truth, justice, and the American Way. There’s no doubt but that much of John Grisham’s early success was due to his anti-lawyer, anti-lawyering stance. Most of his early characters become disillusioned with the law and quit, in some cases before they’ve actually begun. This clearly captured the zeitgeist of lawyer-bashing popular at the time. (To be fair, Grisham, a fine writer, has since moved on to more profound themes.)

Many contemporary novels have found great success by encapsulating, or perhaps galvanizing, the sentiment of their times. Catch-22 rode to success with an antiwar theme that held great appeal during the Vietnam era (even though the story concerned a different war). The same could be said of M*A*S*H. The Bonfire of the Vanities was perceived as a summation of the “Me Generation” of the 80s. The film Tootsie addressed gender roles and stereotypes long before that became commonplace.

Some themes recur frequently because they are universal, or close to it. Prejudice. The dehumanization of industrial society. Revenge. Corruption. Obsession. Relationships. And then there are all those dichotomies your English teacher used to talk about. Man vs. nature. Hope vs. despair. Good vs. evil. These will always be of interest and import to readers. The only question is whether you can bring anything fresh to the table.

I mean no disrespect to any of the previously mentioned authors when I suggest that the books that continue to be read through successive generations, that stand the test of time, usually speak on a quieter but more profound level. I always advise writers to ask themselves: What matters most to you? Get past the obvious answers. I know you love your spouse, kids, family, pets. Beyond that. What matters most? What has made the biggest difference in your life? If you could cause your readers to see one thing, what would it be?

Theme should add depth to your story, should transform it from an amusing way to pass time into a meaningful reading experience. The repetition of thematic elements will lend the tale resonance. The story will still be strong, and that’s good, because it you practice any degree of subtlety, some readers will miss it. But the others will appreciate you much more because you lent an added dimension to your tale. And it should be useful to you during the writing process, too, because knowing your theme will help you make decisions about what to write, what characters to use, and what should happen to them. In the editing stage, it guides what to keep and what to cut. It sharpens the entire story.

In the Red Sneaker book, I’ll talk more about how to integrate that theme into your work. In the meantime, my Kindle Scout campaign has two more weeks to go, so please tell your friends to meander over and “nominate” my book. Costs nothing and might get you a free book. And please also spread the word about the Patreon campaign I’m hoping will keep the Red Sneaker Center, all the blogs and newsletters and publishing and seminars, running for the foreseeable future.

Kindle Scout: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/KY5IRZ0DD3YU

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/willbern

 

 

Figuring Out the Publishing World

Would you take a moment to nominate my new novel on Kindle Scout? It costs your nothing, and if the book is selected, you’ll receive a free digital copy. Click here to get to the page, then click “Nominate me.”

Since I’ve spent the last several blog posts talking about writing, I’m not surprised that most of the Red Sneaker email is about publishing, trying to fathom how to crack the market, where to send manuscripts, how to survive in a world where bookstores are online and books look like Star Trek PADDs.

I wish I had all the answers. I don’t. At best, I can offer a few guidelines, but at least those guidelines are based upon experience gained publishing over forty books in every possible way during the last thirty years. Here’s what I know for sure about where to publish your books:

  1. It depends on the book, and
  2. It depends upon you.

When I started submitting manuscripts back in the 80s, there was no confusion about it. Unless you had a NYC publisher, you weren’t in the bookstores, and that was where books sold. But somewhere in the last twenty years, Amazon became America’s top bookseller–by far. (#1 retailer, too.) In 2009, digital gizmos like iPads started catching on, and pretty soon people could carry thousands of books on a device that weighed less than a pound. If you’ve ever packed books for a long trip, you can see the advantages. Yes, you may prefer snuggling up to a nice hardcover when you’re in bed, but you aren’t always in bed (I hope) and hardcovers are expensive and increasingly harder to find. So what’s the upshot?

  1. Adult genre fiction sells more in eBook than paper. Figures vary, but it looks to me like sales are around 75% eBook. Books for kids, art books, and some nonfiction still sells better in paper–but the margin in narrowing.
  2. The Big Five NYC publishers are becoming increasingly dependent upon genre fiction (which they sometimes call “upscale fiction” to make it sound more different than it is). You will need an agent to pitch them.
  3. Smaller publishers are less likely to care about agents, and that may be where your non-genre work is heading anyway.
  4. New York is not publishing poetry to any significant degree.
  5. Amazon Publishing is not yet the largest share of the market, but they are the fastest growing slice–by far. Given the high visibility Amazon gives books in which they have a vested interest, that just makes sense.
  6. The Kindle Scout program is one way to get a book into Amazon. Amazon has other houses, but some still require agents (and even if you have one, do you want to give up 20% of your slender royalties)? It works best for adult genre fiction, though there have been exceptions.

And this is why last week, I worked on a book for a large publisher, sent one to a smaller publisher (cross fingers) and launched a Kindle Scout campaign for another book. These days, you need to try everything–based upon what’s right for the book and what’s right for you.

NOMINATE ME!: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/KY5IRZ0DD3YU

Join my Patreon campaign!: https://www.patreon.com/willbern

Patronage in the Modern World

If you’ve followed my social media this week, it will come as no surprise that my topic today is Patronage. My Patreon campaign launched on Friday. Click here.

Asking is hard. At least for me it is, and I think for most of you as well. Here is the rugged land of rags-to-riches fables and Protestant work ethic, we tend to exalt self-reliance. Asking suggests vulnerability, or imperfection, and no one wants that. Writers in particular want to be independent. Sure, we want a zillion people to read our books, but we also want the freedom to do the work that matters to us.

I recently read Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking, and it had a big impact on me. You can get the short version in her terrific TED talk (Click here). (She also has an excellent Patreon campaign.) The book discusses how hard it was for her to ask for support from her fans and admirers. She didn’t want to be perceived as a loser, or as taking advantage. She’s married to Neil Gaiman, but she didn’t want to be dependent on a husband’s fans. She much preferred a community that admired her work and wanted to support it.

Once upon a time, of course, virtually all artists depended upon patronage. Before copyright laws existed, that was about the only way for writers–and painters and musicians–to survive. We have intellectual property protection today–sort of. The internet and bit torrents have made it possible to distribute other people’s work without paying them, and sadly, millions download pirated material. The publishing industry has changed dramatically and eBooks are not terribly profitable for most. Which is why you are seeing a rise in patronage, a new relationship between artists and their fans, through sites like Patreon and Kickstarter and Indiegogo and such. You like what artists are doing? Here’s how you let them know.

I’ve been running this Red Sneaker Center for Writers for many years, but I’ve always made a point of keeping the books and audios and stuff dirt cheap. I didn’t want anyone to have to agonize over whether they could afford to buy them. You want to be a writer? Here’s help–take it. But of course, writing those books takes time, newsletters must be distributed, developing apps is expensive…you get the idea. Like Amanda Palmer, I would rather sell the work at cost and be supported by people who appreciate what I’m doing.

So I launched the Pastreon campaign. If you’d like to help keep this Red Sneaker school going, please check it out. While you’re there, look at the other artist Patreon pages. Many people are doing fantastic work, and they could you use your help, too. A tiny contribution makes a big difference–if many people pitch in.

Let me share what one of the first contributors to my campaign wrote. This truly touched my heart, because I thought, HE GETS IT! He said:

“I’m thrilled that this tool exists to help support artists. In your case I have literally stopped many times from listening to the Red Sneaker books (which I listen to again and again in audiobook format) to think how unfair it is that I paid such a small price for such amazing and valuable learning. I have wanted to do something to say thank you for that and make things more balanced in paying for what I’ve gained.

This gives me a chance to show my support for your work with Red Sneaker Writers. Consider my pledge a nudge in that direction 😉 I can’t believe you manage the output of high quality work and help you do without it being full time. Just wow!”
​                                –Jason W.

Lots of cool gifts and book-related goodies if you join, too. Please check it out: https://www.patreon.com/willbern

Theme, Part 2

Thanks to everyone who suggested a title for my forthcoming Red Sneaker book. “Thinking Theme” is my current favorite (possibly “Thinking About Theme?”) but I’m still open to any suggestions you might have.

Last time I talked about what theme isn’t–basically, it isn’t clubbing people over the head with a moral or a political viewpoint (though Aesop and Ayn Rand might feel differently). Let’s get more positive this time. Let’s talk about what theme is.

I will admit that I am still influenced by a seminal book I read early in my writing career, John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction. Here, the brilliant critic, theoretician, and author of novels like Grendel talked about theme, and more specifically, how to make fiction moral. His idea was that all stories convey society’s underlying values (some better than others). This is represented in authors’ choices, how they lay out the plot, what creates a story that seems to “make sense.” If you accept that notion, then one reason to read old books is to gain insight into the values of the people of the time when it was written. I have often said that one of the great pleasures of reading classic literature is that you realize that people may have believed different stuff back then–but people themselves haven’t changed at all.

Stories are the glue that hold together our fragile experience. They validate our values. This is revealed not only when you choose what to read, but when you choose what to write. That’s just common sense. Techno-thrillers appeal to those who favor strong shows of military force, not pacifists. SF appeals to people who, at the very least, believe in science. Romances appeal to those who believe in love. Religious fiction…well, this is getting obvious, isn’t it? You get the point.

To be fair, some people read to have their values challenged…but not many. We tend to be a closed-minded bunch, even those of us who read voraciously. But if you can produce a book that seriously challenges the way people think, you may be headed to greatness. Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be a good example. On Civil Disobedience is another. Many spiritual or inspirational books have traded on vagueness, that is, they aren’t really saying anything new, but give readers the feeling that they’ve read something terribly profound–when in reality they’re just reinforcing what the reader already believes. In the opinion of some, this might include Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or The Celestine Prophecy, or even Tuesdays with Morrie–all of them huge bestsellers.

Gardner said, “By theme here we mean not a message—a word no good writer likes applied to his work—but the general subject, as the theme of an evening of debates may be Worldwide Inflation.”  So it’s presenting a subject worthy of contemplation, rather than telling people what to think. Posing a question, but not forcing an answer. Similarly, Chekov said a writer does not solve a problem so much as state the problem correctly.

One of the most challenging examples of this for me was my novel Capitol Conspiracy, which tackled the then-new Patriot Act. The fundamental question was, Should we uphold the civil rights upon which this nation was founded, or relinquish them in favor of enhanced security? I tried not to take sides. I knew everyone would expect bleeding-heart Ben Kincaid to take the liberal viewpoint, so I created a dramatic event that turned the poor boy in just the opposite direction. If Ben could rethink his predispositions, should we? Ultimately I wasn’t trying to tell people what to think. I was saying, This is an important topic we should all think about, and give reasoned, not panicked or reactionary, consideration.

More next week. Btw, registrations for my California and Massachusetts retreats will close at the end of the month. Don’t miss this opportunity to workshop your words and ideas. Click here: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

 

Thinking About Theme, Part 1

Let me lead with a secret: The next book in the Red Sneaker book series will be on Theme (then Description and Setting, Conflict, and unless you think of something else, I’m done). Perhaps you’re questioning whether this sounds like the most exciting writing topic. I think it is–in fact, sometimes I think it’s the most exciting part of the whole process. Or perhaps you’re imagining you already know everything there is to know about Theme. Maybe you do–but I can tell you that I didn’t, which became abundantly clear as I started gathering my thoughts for this book, and I’ve written over thirty novels now.

Depending upon who your English teacher was, you may have the idea that theme is some deep, profound, secret meaning cryptically buried somewhere in a fictional or poetic text. I don’t think so, and I think Theme is rarely as simple or as didactic as what we are sometimes taught. I mean, maybe in Aesop’s fables, or in a parable (Pilgrim’s Progress, Animal Farm), but most novelists want to be somewhat subtler. Rightly so. Morals hammering readers over the head rarely have much impact. To me the best themes do not pound. Theme is best when it’s more like the brush of a feather, something that tickles readers’ brains just enough to get them thinking–but not enough to take them out of the story.

One of the best analogies I’ve read is this: theme is the container for your story.  Sort of like a cup, or a goblet.  It’s what holds all the other elements together and makes them even better than they might otherwise be.  And here’s the truth: the goblet may be completely unnoticed by some readers, but the drink is still better because the goblet is there.

Don’t think of Theme as some ponderous shroud only decoded by academics and critics, diehard dissertation writers who strap the story to a chair and beat the theme out, leaving it lifeless afterward. It’s not a game of Hide and Seek. It’s more like Sardines (if you don’t know the diff, Google it). You have the joy of discovery without the pain struggling for it. Because reading is not supposed to be a hair-shirt experience. The story itself should be a delight, and the theme is the lagniappe, the added bonus that gives it additional pleasure and makes the book linger in the reader’s memory long after the last page is turned. Like Harry Chapin said, “It’s got to be the going not the getting there that’s good.”

 

Have you ever finished a book and thought, That was nice, but so what? And a week later, you can’t even recall what it was about? That’s not the ticket to the bestseller list, much less the classics list. The best way to give your book added resonance is to underlie the conflict with a well-conceived theme. This is why War and Peace is more than just another war story, why A Tale of Two Cities is more than just another thriller.

Okay, so now that I’ve explained what Theme isn’t, you may be wondering what it is. Next week.

By the way, if I’m going to write a book on theme, I need a snazzy alliterative two-word title. And frankly, I got nothing. Can you suggest a title? I’ll give you credit and everything. Everything except royalties. Email your ideas to me: willbern@gmail.com. Any other suggestions for the book will be equally welcome.

The summer is fact approaching and I’ll be closing registrations for at least two of my writing retreats at the end of the month. Register before it’s too late: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Viewpoint–The Writer’s Greatest Challenge

Maybe this is an exaggeration, but I’ve been editing quite a few manuscripts lately (see below for info on editing and critique services) and I’ve found that I’m commenting on viewpoint problems more frequently than anything else. I discussed viewpoint in a chapter in Creating Character, but I nonetheless continue to receive requests that I devote an entire book to the subject. This reinforces my feeling that this is something that’s causing headaches for some aspiring writers.

It’s really not that complicated. Look, you just need to pick a viewpoint and stick with it throughout a scene. If you change viewpoint characters, don’t do it in the middle of the scene. No “head-hopping,” that is, drifting from one character to another’s thoughts and observations. That leaves the reader feeling dislocated. They don’t want to hear from an omniscient narrator who knows everything about everyone (meaning you, the author). They want to forget about the author and be immersed in the story. Readers will care more about your characters and what happens to them if you can get them inside the characters’ heads.

This does restrict what you can write about, or at least how you go about it. You cannot reveal information your viewpoint character does not or could not know. You may say something like, “She thought his smirk suggested he didn’t believe her,” but you cannot say, “He didn’t believe her” when you’re in her viewpoint, because she doesn’t know. Internal monologue is a good tool for keeping your reader inside a character’s viewpoint. When characters are thinking to themselves, the reader feels securely within that viewpoint. That doesn’t mean you should do it to excess, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should use internal monologue to tell rather than show (see the discussion below). And fyi, you don’t have to use italics every time your characters think to themselves.

Ideally, each new scene should identify the viewpoint character in the first sentence. “Mary walked into the room” or something like that. Then unless there is a scene break, you cannot portray any other viewpoint. You can’t take us inside another character’s head, or tell us what he or she thinks or experiences, unless and until you break the scene. Ideally, after identifying the viewpoint character by name in the first sentence, you refer to them by “he” or “she” for the rest of the scene. This tight psychic distance keeps the reader firmly inside that viewpoint. Using their name again tends to take readers outside their head, to distance them. Of course, this also means none of the other characters in the scene can be “he” or “she.” Refer to them by name or a nickname.

Head-hopping, or stream-of-consciousness writing, is not as immersive, and omniscient narration has fallen out of common use–for a good reason. Readers don’t like it as much. What they like is to experience a story through the eyes and ears of one of the characters involved. Even when there are multiple viewpoints, readers should have a sense of who the main character is and should spend most of the time inside that head, experiencing the story as the protagonist does.

The usual reason for introducing additional viewpoints is to increase suspense. The narrative flips to an antagonist’s viewpoint and the reader learns something the protagonist doesn’t know yet. This creates suspense, because the reader knows something bad is in the works but the lead character doesn’t.

One last thought: many beginning readers try to avoid these viewpoint problems by writing in first-person narration. I do not receommend this. If you think first person is easier than third person–you’re wrong. It is far more challenging to do well, because it means staying in the voice of a character–who should not be a sassier, braver verison of the author–for an entire book. While it can be done, I think it’s best reserved for writers with experience and a clear view of their character’s unique identity.

Click here to learn more about the Red Sneaker Editing & Critique Service (I do the editing myself).

Maximize Your Writing Time

If there’s a universal lesson that I think all writers must learn, it’s that your most valuable commodity–by far–is time. I can teach people to write cleaner, more effectively, more dramatically, but the one thing I cannot do is teach people to write more quickly. Finishing a book is extremely time-consuming, and that will be true whether you’re on your first book or your forty-fourth. As soon as you hear someone grin and say, “I write fast,” you know it probably isn’t going to be very good.

As a writer, you have to measure “to-do” items, not simply in terms of need, or cost, but time. Sure, it will save you fifty cents to drive to the other side of the city and buy gas at that 7-11, but what is the cost to you in terms of time? To be more specific, how many words are you giving up to save fifty cents? Is it a good investment?

Given the importance of time to every writer, I’m going to list a few productivity tools I think are valuable. The most essential one is Dropbox or Google Drive. You need one or the other for two reasons: 1) to make sure you have a safe place to store your work, and 2) so you can share large files with agents, publishers, friends, fans. You may back up your computer to a cloud, or an external hard drive, and that’s a good idea, but you probably don’t want to share access to your complete hard drive. An inexpensive Dropbox account will allow you to share specific large files with anyone. It also allows you to access key files regardless of where you are or which device you’re currently using. (If you don’t have an external hard drive, CrashPlan provides a continuous 24/7 backup for the contents of your computer.)

Evernote is the world’s most popular organizer, or “to-do list” program. It is beautifully designed and easy to use. I compose the first drafts of these blog posts on it. I’ve also used it for outlines, research notes, or random ideas that occur to me when it’s inconvenient to write them out in detail. You can carry the app version on your phone, so even if you don’t have your computer with you, Evernote can store your ideas. If your desk is perpetually surrounded by Post-It notes, it may be time to consider Evernote.

Zoom is the best and cheapest online meeting service for conferencing with editors, agents, friends, students, colleagues. Apple users can use FaceTime, but amazingly, not everyone uses Apple devices.

If you create graphics, check out Canva. It’s somewhere between Gimp, which is completely free but limited, and Photoshop, which can do about anything but is extremely expensive. I wouldn’t use Canva to design a cover, but it’s fine for creating social media materials. I’ve started posting about my poetry on Instagram, because that’s the largest poetry community in the world today. But Instagram requires a visual. Canva allows me to create good ones. (If you need free/public domain visual images, go to VisualHunt).

SignUp Genius is the best bargain in online scheduling software. We used it at the last Rose State Writing Conference to schedule private consults, and it was a huge improvement over pencil-and-paper scheduling. Acuity Scheduling has more features, but it does require a small monthly charge.

Virtual Response is the email newsletter service I prefer (I use it to send out the Red Sneaker Newsletter). VR makes it easy and cheap to send email to large numbers of people. Inputting the addresses is streamlined and simple. If you have fewer than 2000 names on your mailing list, MailChimp is free–but you may find you soon outgrow it.

Just remember: Cool gadgets and gizmos are only advantageous is they give you more time to write–not if you’re playing with your gadgets when you should be writing. Make yourself write as often as possible, whether you are “in the mood” or not. That’s how books get finished.

Shopping for Writers

It’s that time again, like it or not. We were at the mall yesterday to see a movie, but we could barely get there for all the holiday shoppers scurrying frantically about. Is Christmas shopping still fun? Was it ever?

I bet you have some writers on your shopping list. I know I do. And this past week, I’ve seen several proposed shopping lists floating around the internet, all of which I thought terrible, filled with expensive tech gewgaws more likely to distract a writer than to aid one. So of course, I decided to prepare a list of my own.

Editing Tools. I’ve written a previous blog about the importance of outside editing for all writers, and I’m always available to help you find an incisive copyeditor. But some people are seeking advice on technical matters. Hemingway is an app that helps you improve readability. It tells you if you’re being too wordy or technical. Deadline and Grammarly are apps that check grammar and punctuation, but if you’re giving a gift, I suggest the more in-depth (and expensive) analysis provided by ProWritingAid. You paste in your text and it will give you many different reports (how many depends on how much you pay) and an overall summary. It will not only correct grammar but point out cliches, redundancies, vagaries, excessive dialogue tags, and much more.

Writing Tools. The most stylish writer in the house, Kadey, suggests a Tiffany & Co pen, preferably in the iconic baby blue. Diamonds are optional. I’m a fountain pen man myself, but I have to admit, they are lovely. If you don’t want to spend quite that much, try the Knock Knock Note Pads. They are hilarious. I prefer the Pep Talk version, because it seems to be speaking to writers with check boxes labeled “You Can Do It!” or “It Is What It Is.”

Consider an Assistant. Overwhelmed by the social media necessary to publicize a book these days? Consider an author assistant. The cost might be less than you imagine–find a bright English major by posting at your local community college. Every time you punt some chore like media posting or manuscript formatting or managing email or fact-checking or website management, you’ve bought yourself more time to write.

Illumination. Lara (author of the acclaimed novel The Wantland Files) suggests candles. This may be influenced by the fact that she writes in the bathtub (don’t laugh, so did Voltaire), and what’s the point of a bath without candles? Bath & Body Works is currently having a sale on their aromatherapy line.

Education. I would be remiss (and excessively modest) if I didn’t mention my summer writing retreats, which are also more affordable than you might imagine–I haven’t raised the price in ten years. My 2017 schedule is finalized, and if you register before the end of 2016, you get a 20% discount. I love working with aspiring writers, and the fact that more than two dozen of my students have gone on to publish with major publishers suggests that the retreats work. I know they’re a lot of fun. Here’s the schedule:

June 21-25, 2017 East Coast Retreat
Dolliver’s Neck Road
Gloucester MA 01930 (near Boston and Freeport)

June 28-July 2, 2017 Deep South Retreat
The Veranda
252 Seavy Street
Senoia GA 30276 (near Atlanta)

July 5-9, 2017 Ozark Mountains Retreat
The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow
515 Spring Street
Eureka Springs AR 72632

July 19-23, 2017 West Coast Retreat
Huntington Beach CA 92647 (near LA and Anaheim)

July 26-30, 2017 Southwest Retreat
2801 Parklawn Drive
Midwest City OK 73110 (near OKC)

For information about the retreats, call 405 203 8641 or visit my website: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Here are some more links:

Tiffany pens 

Knock Knock Notes

Hemingway

Grammarly

ProWriting Aid

Candles

Don’t forget to enjoy Christmas!

Should My Novel Have Multiple Viewpoints?

During a visit to Thrillerfest a few years ago, I heard the same question posed to two different writers (during two different sessions). Each was asked, “How many viewpoint characters can you have?” The first author, who is successful and well-respected, answered, “Three is good. Five is the max.” When my friend Phillip Margolin received the same query, his answer was, “How many do you need?”

I’m with Phil, but I do think we need to establish some guidelines. You should have a central protagonist. Though there are exceptions to every rule, readers generally are happier when they know whose story they are following and who they are rooting for. Books with co-protagonists rarely work. So regardless of the number of viewpoints, the protagonist should have more scenes than anyone else and those should recur most frequently. I think it’s usually a bad idea to be away from the protagonist for more than a chapter.

Multiple viewpoint is more common today than it has been in previous eras. Arguably, the epistolary novel was a form of multiple viewpoint, but subsequently, single-viewpoint novels were more common. In time, though, writers realized that multiple viewpoint was a great way to drum up suspense. In mysteries and thrillers, a departure into the viewpoint of a competitor or villain allows the reader to know something the hero doesn’t–ratcheting up the tension (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). This might also give you an opportunity to make the antagonist more empathetic and less of a cardboard bad guy. In romances, multiple viewpoint–switching between hero and heroine, is more common today (A Run for Love by Callie Hutton). And you will also find it in SF/fantasy and literary fiction (The Hours by Michael Cunningham or The Help by Kathryn Stockett). Ultimately, you have to decide what is the best approach for telling your story.

I recall one of the best writers I know, David Morrill, railing against writers who introduce a viewpoint character for one chapter only (usually because the character dies at the end). For David, this is lazy writing. There’s always a better way to convey that scene than by asking the reader to become invested in a character who will never appear again. It’s not only a cheat but an unwelcome bit of misdirection. When you put your reader in a character’s viewpoint, you suggest that this character is important. They will not be pleased to learn the character is simply a victim. And it’s always a bad idea to introduce a new viewpoint just to drag in some exposition or infodump.

And now, having established the rules, let me explain how and when I broke them. When I wrote the last Ben Kincaid courtroom drama, Capitol Offense, one of the topics I wanted to address was the common law enforcement policy of not pursuing lost-person reports from a spouse until someone has been gone a long time, often as long as a week. Their excuse is that, in most cases, there’s been a squabble and the spouse has simply run off. But this policy has led to many tragic results. In my novel, Ben’s client was devastated by the loss of his wife–because the police waited too long to look for her. I wanted the reader to feel his pain, and to me, that meant they needed to know his wife personally. So I introduced the wife in the first scene, her work as an oncologist for children, her sense of humor, her great love for her husband. Obviously, she did not survive far into the story. But I still felt the excursion into her viewpoint was justified.

Capitol Offensehttps://smile.amazon.com/Capitol-Offense-Novel-Kincaid-Book-ebook/dp/B002PXFYJC/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1479663628&sr=8-1

Myth #7: The Key to Success is a Good Story Idea

Those of you who have attended my small-group writing retreats know that we spend precious little time brainstorming premises. Since I ask everyone to send me their work-in-progress before the retreat begins, I assume everyone already has an idea and wants some input on how to make it better. But doesn’t that mean I’m overlooking something important? Doesn’t that mean I’ve skipped Square One?

No. Here’s the truth. Ideas are everywhere, and most of them are variations on themes that have been around much longer than we have. One of the great benefits of maintaining a regular writing schedule is that, once your subconscious knows you’re going to be writing every day, it keeps an eye out for stuff to write about. You can’t browse through bookstore, or see a film, or read a newspaper, or even walk down the street without being bombarded with ideas. Most professional writers have far more ideas than they could ever write. When it comes time to start a new book, they have to sift the wheat from the chaff and pick the one (or combine several) to write.

Here’s another truth: If you look at the breakout hits, or the books on the bestseller lists, you’ll mostly see books of excellent quality. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the core idea is breathtakingly original. You’ll find mysteries, thrillers, romances, historical melodramas–variations on established themes. I hope the characters seem fresh and the situations aren’t hackneyed…but there will always be a core of familiarity. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because part of the reason people read fiction, and particularly genre fiction, is because it’s comfortable. Readers hope you bring energy and excitement to it, but they don’t necessarily expect, or even want, you to reinvent the wheel.

If that’s true, you may be wondering, how do I make my book stand out? How do I make it catch the eye of an agent or editor? This is what I map out in my book Promising Premise. You take your core idea and build it into something wonderful. Here’s that book’s must-have list:

High stakes

Emotional appeal

Inherent conflict

Believability

Fresh Spin

And if you don’t know what I mean by all those…what can I say? Go get the book.

And if you’ve done all that and you’re still not selling…it’s not the idea, it’s the writing. May I direct you to Sizzling Style?

Promising Premise: https://smile.amazon.com/Powerful-Premise-Writing-Irresistible-Sneaker-ebook/dp/B00Z4RN5QU/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1479070966&sr=1-1

Sizzling Style: https://smile.amazon.com/Sizzling-Style-Matters-Sneaker-Writers-ebook/dp/B00JRESCOQ/ref=pd_sim_351_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=6QTAP02R1XGAH7CWD0X1