The Dreaded Prologue

by K. C. Maguire

After an amazing writing retreat last week and re-reading some of Nancy Kress’s craft book (Beginnings, Middles, & Ends), I have prologues on my mind. I considered a prologue for my first YA novel (Inside the Palisade), but ultimately removed it pre-publication. I thought my attempt at a prologue for that book was kind of stilted and pretentious. I haven’t attempted a prologue since, which is probably a good idea given the collective wisdom shared by agents and editors at most writers conferences in recent years. But I remain fascinated by the move against prologues, given that they can sometimes do useful things for a book.

Kress points out that prologues can be useful when the reader needs to know something that happens much earlier or later in time than the main story or that is told in a different voice to the main story (a voice that won’t be used again in the main narrative). She also discusses prologues that present documents important to the story like newspaper articles, court documents, or personal letter (Kress, pp 29-30). Written well and used effectively, she notes that they can whet the reader’s appetite for the story. Of course, used badly they can give the reader yet another excuse to put down your book.

The example of a good prologue that Kress uses that always sticks in my mind is the opening scene in the first Jurassic Park movie – and I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if it opens the same way. That’s the scene where the park worker is killed horribly and violently by an animal we never see. It drawers the viewer in for the rest of the story. Why can’t more books achieve that? Why are we so anti-prologue?

The only prologues that turn me off as a reader tend to be long-winded fantasy prologues that go on for pages and have lots of place and character names with apostrophes in them that are at least four or five syllables long. Other than that, I don’t have a strong anti-prologue feeling.

What do other folks think? Are there prologues you particularly like or particularly hate?

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Writing 101: The Character Arc

by Monica Shaughnessy

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If you’re a beginning writer or maybe a writer struggling with your second novel, you might be wondering how to construct the perfect character arc. Well, I’m here to help. First, let’s define it, shall we?

Character Arc: a character’s emotional journey throughout the story. 

This is completely different from (but intertwined with) characterization, which is the exploration of details about a character’s past and present that make them seem real and that help drive decisions (along with emotion) throughout the story. For instance, if your main character is autistic (characterization), it will significantly alter their emotional choices (arc). One feeds into the other. But for the sake of this post, let’s extract the character arc so that we may study it in detail.

At the opening of your story, your character begins with an emotional state. Here are some classic opening emotions:

Boredom – I wish something exciting would happen to me for a change.

Joy – I met the most wonderful guy last week, and now we’re dating.

Terror – I just woke up, and there’s a man at the foot of my bed.

Pressure – If I don’t defuse the bomb, the mall will explode.

Throughout the story, your character’s emotional state will vary, but the main emotion, the one you begin with, will drive the forward action of the plot because your MC will either be trying to rid themselves of that feeling or trying to maintain that feeling, despite roadblocks. So choose this state carefully and with purpose.

As we progress through the story, here’s how the above emotions might play out, depending on plot turns:

Boredom – I went looking for action, and I found it! Hooray! Except, it’s more dangerous than I thought it would be. And I have to be home in time for dinner.

Joy – My guy’s mother doesn’t like me. She’s trying to tear us apart.

Terror – I’m going to fight my way out of this situation. Again and again.

Pressure – I’m getting a little old for all this pressure. Do I even want it anymore?

As the story progresses, your character will continue to fight for what they want or they might begin to see what they’re fighting for isn’t worth it.

Boredom – Well, I’m not bored anymore. Because I’m in the emergency room with a broken foot.

Joy – I’m so confused. We were so happy once. Can we be that way again? Maybe, if his mother moves to Boca Raton.

Terror – I refuse to live in terror. I will make a plan, once and for all, to end this.

Pressure – You know, defusing bombs is kind of fun. And it beats working for the post office.

By the end of the story, your character will come to terms with the emotions they’ve been feeling since page one, and they will assess whether they want to maintain that initial state or not. Even if they don’t control the outcome of the plot, they can still choose their mental state.

Boredom – Things aren’t so bad at home. Especially when you compare them to a trip to the ER. I’ll take homework and dinner with my parents any old day! (character craves boredom)

Joy – Who needs a mamma’s boy? The guy was a jerk. Good riddance. (character realizes that joy is no longer attainable)

Terror – I defeated that crazy guy and reclaimed my life so that I can live in peace. (character overcomes terror)

Pressure – This job is totally worth whatever stress it gives me. I’m not ready to retire. (character accepts pressure)

You see? The main character will accept or overcome or reject or crave what they once felt. In all cases, the emotion is tightly bound by the plot, and the plot is tightly bound by emotion. If, once you write your story, you can’t easily change the plot without damaging what the character is experiencing emotionally, then you’ve nailed your character arc. Congratulations! But if you can easily swap out one emotion for another, say, lust for greed, then your story needs more work.

With a little hard work, I know you can get it right!

—————->

Your turn, dear reader. Having trouble with a pesky character arc? Let’s talk shop.

 

Happy Leap Day/ List Day

time management threeBy Ellen Leventhal

The writer’s life and time management. Unfortunately, these two don’t always go together well. At least not for me. I’m sure I’m not alone in my wish for more hours in the day. Does anyone else end their days staring at the ceiling, ticking off all the tasks you did NOT get done that day? Please tell me it’s not just me!

So how happy am I that there is a full extra day this month? VERY happy. Surely, I will use this day to check things off my list. There aren’t that many things, right? I can do this! Here we go:

  1. Send poetry to that magazine.
  2. Dig out the email that tells me the name of the magazine.
  3. Type out texts of picture books to work on pacing.
  4. Go to the library and check-out said picture books.
  5. Begin work on that new website I’ve been talking about for years.
  6. Find someone to help me do that.
  7. Walk around the block. Sitting all day is bad for you.
  8. Finish three critiques.
  9. Call Comcast so I can get online to pull up the stories to critique.
  10. Re-write that short story in picture book format.
  11. Re-write that picture book manuscript into short story format.
  12. Have lunch!
  13. Stop at the Galleria after lunch to pick up those cute clothes for grandkids.
  14. Text daughters-in-law and double check sizes.
  15. Reply to store’s request for more books. Yes, the reissue of that book will be out by summer.
  16. Nag anyone who is responsible for getting the new book out.
  17. Have dinner.
  18. Climb into bed and tick off every item I did not accomplish. Sigh….

Sometimes it’s time management issues. Sometimes it’s computer issues. And sometimes life interferes with the best laid plans. But I will take this extra day for something. Even if it means counting my blessings because, although the book deals aren’t rolling in, a lot of other great things are.

Happy Leap Day, everyone! Use it to do what makes your happy.

 

 

Are You Feeling the Love?

By Ellen Leventhal

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Here we are. It’s Valentine’s Day. Street corners are crowded with vendors selling roses and balloons. Throngs of last minute shoppers are mowing down each other vying for that last box of chocolates. Come on, folks! It’s just a day.  But I get it. It’s hard to resist a fluffy rabbit holding a sign that says “Some Bunny Loves You.”  But our loved ones  know we love them all year around. Or at least they should. So I decided this year that I wouldn’t feed into the hoopla.  Sure, I’d get everyone a card, but the hoopla? Not me.

But then there were puppies. Real puppies asking to be adopted for Valentine’s day. Stuffed puppies calling out for cuddles from behind a stack of bananas at the grocery store. And all those “Dog Gone It…Be My Valentine!” puppies next to the cough medicine at Walgreens. How much can a person take?

I know it’s just a Hallmark holiday. But now I’m thinking. What harm will it do to have some fun? If a yellow marshmallow Peep is ok for Easter, why not a giant pink cookie for Valentine’s Day?

However, not everyone has a Valentine. Some people dread this day. Holidays are not always easy. Society wants us to wear red and smile today. But that’s not the reality for everyone.

So here’s my suggestion. Sure, give gifts and chocolates if it makes you happy. But try to do more. Let’s make sure that today is not just about our loved ones and chocolate hearts. Let’s make this a day of kindness. Kindness to those we know and those we don’t. Reach out to everyone today. It doesn’t take a lot to smile, open a door, or say thank you.  Of course, we should do that every day, but sometimes we need a reminder. So this year, let’s celebrate “Kindness Day.”

Keeping that in mind,  I have to give props to the Space City Scribes. I thank my SCS buddies for all the help they give me. They even put up with my technical ineptitude. Thanks, guys!   And of course, this group of dynamic women  write a pretty awesome anthology! (Like that segue?)

So,  to those inclined, check out First Last Forever. It’s a group of stories about disastrous first dates. They are sweet, funny, and even a bit devilish.  We hope you like them. And if you do, we’d love a review! 🙂

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01AEDZFMK?keywords=first+last+forever&qid=1452800466&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8

FLF hands FINAL

I wish all our readers a wonderful day with or without stuffed animals. Reach out to someone new, compliment someone, and smile at a stranger. And go ahead and eat some chocolate if you’d like.

For now, I’m off to my son’s house. How can my granddaughter survive without a stuffed dinosaur telling her she is “Dino-mite”?

Happy Kindness Day!

 

 

 

 

 

Striving for the best–Superbowl Sunday

by Mandy Broughton

So the Superbowl happened yesterday. I thought I’d write on the commercials. But I found them lacking. And I won’t even mention the creepy chimera that I believe was the worst commercial of all. I will insert my favorite Superbowl commercial of all time. I haven’t found one to top this gem yet.

End Commercial break.

Two elite teams battled, one came out on top. The one not on top faces endless speculations of “what-ifs” or “should-haves.” The winner becomes known for brilliant strategy and cunning planning. The loser must defend “what were you thinking?” And the dreaded “everyone knows you should have done this instead of that!”

Congratulations to the Denver Broncos. Kudos to head coach, Gary Kubiak. Two thumbs up to defense guru, Wade Phillips. And, from someone not much older than Peyton Manning himself, tip of my hat to a job well done.

I like the Carolina Panthers. I think they had an incredible season. Only two losses. The Panthers join a short list, only ten other teams, to have such a near-perfect season.

I could quote cliche after cliche about how losses lead to learning. But I won’t. I will quote my fencing coach. He likes to say, “when a kid wins, it’s because of a talented kid. When a kid loses, it’s because of bad coaching.” I like the deeper meaning of this message. Parents, kids, athletes, everyone, they love to bask in their own greatness and deflect failure as being caused by others. Maybe it’s not right but it is normal.

Professional football players, or any elite athlete, stir my interest. Talent plays a role, yes, but there must be more. We’ve seen too many talented players fail because they were found lacking. Self-discipline? Work ethic? Maybe even good coaching?

But what separates the hard-working talented player from the elite? Genetics? Earl Campbell, former running back and my favorite football player of all time, had incredible power and, obviously, fast twitch muscles. Bum Phillips, former head coach of the Houston Oilers, was asked about Earl Campbell’s inability to finish a one-mile run. He famously said, “when it’s first and a mile, I won’t give it to him.” Earl Campbell had the genetics.

But it’s not just genetics. Hard work. Discipline. And something more. Earl Campbell said it wasn’t acceptable for just one person to tackle him. In fact, he said it was girly if four, five, or six men didn’t bring him down. Elite athletes come to win. Participation trophies are a disgrace. Losing is painful. It is about winning. The pain. The hard work. The sacrifice. It all becomes instantly better with the W. No, that’s not it. There’s something more, those with the fierce “I must WIN” nature ingrained in them. I’m not talking about something bad. But something that drives them to be the best. Like a dying man crawling towards the life-saving water or a mother who pushes all reason aside, battling larger and fiercer foes, in order to save her offspring. It is a hunger. A drive. A healthy dose of competitiveness. Competition.

And speaking of competitiveness, I’d like to finish with my favorite clip from Superbowl L (yes, I believe they should have kept the Roman numerals). Peyton Manning’s family was excited to see him seal up the victory. Except maybe his brother. Another elite quarterback with two Superbowl rings. And now his older brother has two Superbowl rings. I have no criticism of Eli. All I see is two very competitive men. And one just realized he has to go out and win a third Superbowl to beat his brother. You gotta love competition.

How about you, dear reader? What were your takeaways from yesterday’s game?

Truly Bad Date? Share It and Win!

by Monica Shaughnessy

broken-heart-1316091“Love them or hate them, we’ve all had first dates…”

That’s the opening line of our blurb for First Last Forever: A Collection of First Date Disasters, and I think it’s one most people can identify with, no matter the culture or country. Even arranged marriages begin with a “date” – the wedding date! As we near the most romantic day of the year – Valentine’s Day – this is the perfect time to discuss such matters of the heart. Do you, dear reader, anticipate first dates with dry palms and nerves of steel? Or do you look forward to “getting them over with” so that the second date can begin, the date where you can relax and be YOU, the YOU that wears Converse high tops with dresses and puts Sriracha on pizza and sings off-key to “Ex’s and Oh’s.” (that’s not ME, I swear).

Before writing my own stories for the anthology, I didn’t give much thought to my past. I already had some plot ideas involving situations I’d never been in, like speed dating. No “plumbing the depths” necessary. But then this post arose, forcing me to catalog all of the firsts I could remember, starting with (eeek!) high school. After rummaging through the dusty filing cabinet in my brain, I came up with some truly awkward moments.

Take a look at my top four dating fiascos. I bet you’ve been in a few yourself:

  1. The Set-Up – “Oh, honey, he’s a nice boy, and we like his parents. You only have to go out with him once.” Oy. The small talk on this date was excruciating. Spanish inquisition-type stuff. But the joke was on me, because years later this frog turned into a prince.
  2. The Stand-Up – “Where could he be? Let me check my dial tone. Maybe he tried to call and couldn’t.” Mmm hmm. Bad connection. Gotta be. For anyone under the age of thirty, “checking your dial tone” equates to pinging your BFF with a desperate text asking if she’s receiving because he just. isn’t. answering.
  3. The Sit Down and Shut-Up – “Who is this guy? Certainly not the guy who asked me out. Because the guy who asked me out stopped talking long enough for me to to say yes.” This date was the OPPOSITE of the Set-Up. Too much talking. So much that I hardly got a word in edge-wise. By the end of the evening, I knew every possible thing about him…and he barely knew my name.
  4. The I Give-Up – “We should just be friends. No? Well, we should try. Really. Friends. You’re not getting the hint. Will you stop? Sigh. I guess one date couldn’t hurt.” Sadly, I have been on more than one of these. I am clearly a sloooow learner.

I’m sharing these to get the ball rolling, dear reader. Between now and February 10th, we’re hosting a contest to give away a copy of First Last Forever. We’ll select one winner randomly from the comments below. And I’m expecting my fellow Space City Scribes to stop by and share their embarrassing stories as well. You will, won’t you, ladies?

YOUR TURN: Tell us about your truly awful first date or funny first date or romantic first date, and you’re automatically entered to win a copy of our book. Thanks for reading! And good luck!

 

Acing Unlikeable Protagonists

by Monica Shaughnessy

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Tell My Story. I Dare You.

When I look back at some of the short stories I’ve written, many, many of them feature unlikeable main characters. I find deeply flawed people fascinating, and it’s easy to “get away with” telling their secrets in short form. Readers might not stick with them for an entire novel, but they’ll definitely stick with them over, say, ten pages.

Here are just a few of the evil/pathetic/bigoted main characters I’ve cast over the years:

Lydia Strichter (“The Trash Collector”) – A bigot with a big mouth who loves prying into other people’s business. Perma-free on Amazon.

Josie Kreneck (“Date From Hell,” First Last Forever) –  A fickle thirty-something who’s dumped more men than Madonna.

The Professor (“Hell Cent,” Lethal Lore) – An academician with a giant ego and a yen for strangling women.

Lydia Strichter, by far, has hit the most home runs with readers. Reviews mention her by name, either calling her out for bigotry or praising her journey. (I won’t spoil the ending!) The Professor comes in a distant second, but only because “Hell Cent” is part of a recently released collection and “The Trash Collector” is perma-free (and more widely distributed). We’ll see about Josie Kreneck. But I think her story will resonate with readers as well.

So how do you write an unlikeable character that people will tolerate, maybe even secretly like or identify with? Here are my top tips:

  1. Give them a past tragedy that evokes sympathy and let it drive the story. Lydia is a grieving widow. Josie is afraid of entering middle age alone. The Professor is out of a job. Even readers who haven’t gone through one of these major life events can at least imagine what it’s like to lose a husband, their youth, or their career. This evokes a sympathetic response from the start. It’s harder to hate (truly hate) someone when you know they’ve had a rough past.
  2. Give them a least one likable or admirable quality. Perhaps it’s a sterling work ethic (The Professor) or sentimentality (Lydia) or even bravery (Josie). Your unlikeable main character must have at least one winning quality. Why? Because that’s real life. And people love characters that read like real life. No one is ever “all bad” or “all good.” If you write them like that, you’re creating cardboard characters (which is WORSE than writing unlikeable characters!) Plus, it gives readers something to root for when things turn ugly.
  3. Give them a foible that is very, very common. If a reader has that foible, too, or at least knows someone with it, chances are, they will receive your protagonist more kindly. In the case of my characters, Lydia is uncomfortable with anything too “different.” Josie is desperate for companionship. The Professor is superstitious. I don’t know about you, but these traits resonate with me because I’ve displayed them at one time or another in my life. Luckily not all at once!

Okay, to show you all of these tips in action (and to prove they work), I’m going to give you some characteristics of a real person (now deceased) who has made a great unlikeable main character in both fiction and non-fiction in the past. And by the way, all of the bullet points below are factual. Can you guess who I’m talking about?

Our Protagonist was:

  • An aspiring artist and cartoonist
  • A student with unfilled dreams
  • A grieving brother
  • A decorated veteran with multiple war wounds
  • A vegetarian against the slaughter of animals
  • A loving husband
  • An electrifying speaker

I don’t know about you, but I can either identify with or root for many of these qualities, even admire them. Except, they all belong to…

>

>

>

Adolph Hitler.

Yeah, no kidding.

Which leads me to the very last tip:

4. Don’t make your main character so freaking bad that no tragic past/admirable quality/common foible can overcome their evil. In other words, it’s possible to wade too far into the deep end and create a character that prompts readers to shut the book on page one and curse your name. Er, like Hitler.

So don’t be afraid of casting bad guys in protagonist roles. Just do it with thought and planning and a little sympathy.

————>

How about you, dear reader? Ever cast a bad guy as your protagonist? Ever made your hero an anti-hero? Let’s discuss!

Romance Readers: A Dating Disaster Anthology!

by Monica Shaughnessy

UPDATE: Our Rafflecopter promotion is now live! Enter to win your own copy of our new anthology. Check out our Facebook fan page for more details. (ends Feb. 1)

The Space City Scribes are releasing a new romance anthology on February 5th, just in time for Valentine’s Day. But it’s available now through pre-sale on Amazon and Smashwords and only 99 cents. Months ago, we met to brainstorm fun romance ideas for the collection. We knew, however, that we needed to put a twist on what’s already out there. So the ever-creative K.C. Maguire suggested first date stories. But not just any first dates, bad first dates. Ah! How terrible could we make them? I’m boasting, of course, but I think my story, “Date From Hell,” sinks to a new low for lovers. You must read it, of course, to find out why a “hot date” isn’t necessarily a good time. Then again, my writing companions threw some pretty awful stuff at their hapless couples: hurricanes, bullets, community service, stalking…  Curious now, aren’t you?

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Synopsis: Love them or hate them, we’ve all had first dates. From the blush of romance to the slamming of a door, nothing can capture—or repel—our hearts so fully. Do we swoon with desire? Hope for tenderness? Or does the first meeting shatter any chance of two souls connecting?

In First Last Forever, each story follows the passionate, sometimes accidental rendezvous between two people as they fight to overcome the one obstacle between them and happiness—the disastrous first date. Will they end with a promise, a parting, or a pledge? Read these stories to find out.

First:

“Valentine’s Date” by KC Maguire- Should we be friends?

“Salt to a Wound” by Mandy Broughton – First world dating problems

“Speed Freaks” by Monica Shaughnessy – Five minutes to find forever. Or just the next good time.

“Prima Facie” by Artemis Greenleaf – Say no to drugs and yes to romance.

Last:

“Date from Hell” by Monica Shaughnessy – Karma has never been so sexy.

“A Soliloquy of Survival or First Dates Suck” by Ellen Leventhal – Stalkers can be so hot.

“Dance” by Artemis Greenleaf – Killer dates come in small packages with excellent dance moves.

Forever:

“Cassie” by Artemis Greenleaf – High winds lead to high romance.

“In the Mood” by Mandy Broughton – Principal Charming

“Famine’s Daughter” by Artemis Greenleaf – Never force a woman’s hand.

“Auld Lang Syne” by Ellen Leventhal – Can we call a do-over?

Buy your copy now!

Imaginary friends and writing

by Mandy Broughton

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My daughter had an imaginary friend. My daughter treated her as a real friend. So real that it was six months before I realized she didn’t exist. Imagine my surprise when I asked the preschool teachers to point out Olivia to me and they told me, “there’s no Olivia in this class.” Turns out there wasn’t an Olivia in any classes at the school. I know, I checked.

Best friends. Olivia was quite the trouble-maker. I’d hear all about these wild parties my daughter and Olivia would throw while I slept blissfully through the night. I said more than once I was glad Olivia was good at cleaning up the house after a wild night of partying.

Olivia’s mom was quite the rebel too. I was informed one day that Olivia’s mom was thrown in jail for speeding. I found myself arguing with a three year old on whether or not her imaginary friend’s mother was thrown in jail for speeding. Sheesh!

I decided to research children and imaginary friends. I never had any. As a child, I was perfectly content to sit and read in my room all day. Friends–real or imaginary–would disturb that peace.

Imaginary friends are what we would expect from highly creative people. Active imagination. Intelligent. Creative. Verbal. What I did not expect was that many adults had imaginary friends. What?! Are these people in need of a mental health professional? Maybe, but mostly they are creative adults. And it turns out many of those creative adults are authors.

As a writer, I know I have proper characterization when I dream about my characters. I can hear what they say in certain situations. I know how they’d act when problems arise. Fictional characters should not be shooting gallery ducks forced to respond in a certain way when a crisis occurs.* Characters should be organic, growing as the story progresses. They should feel more real than some real-life celebrities we watch and follow in the news.

As a writer, have you ever needed a character to act a certain way and she just wouldn’t? She’s supposed to be angry but she’s acting all quirky and sarcastic on the page. Or two characters start flirting with each other and they’re not supposed to even like each other. Happens to me all the time. My characters have taken over the pages of my manuscripts. And many of them are completely unrepentant for derailing my plot. I guess I’ve developed imaginary friends as an adult. Maybe I’m a late bloomer.

So tell me, dear writers, how do you know when you’ve achieved proper characterization? Do you hear voices in your head? Do you dream about them? Do you mock-up a fake Facebook page and imagine what they’d post? I mostly argue with mine.

Back to work on this first work week of the New Year. I hope the New Year brings plenty of good books, lots of writing, and great friendships–real and imaginary!

Oh, and I can’t forget, as a longtime, die-hard University of Houston Cougar alumni and fan… oDPuclxr.jpgCongratulations on winning the Peach Bowl. GO COOGS!

 

*My editor once told me my characters were like shooting gallery ducks, they were cardboard and went back and forth like I was shooting at them.