Monday, February 28, 2005

How I Got Here, Part 3

My thanks to those of you who’ve posted comments. I enjoy that feedback. To answer one question from Friday—Eyes of Elisha was the first novel I wrote. It wasn’t my first novel to be published. Ah, but that’s all part of the journey story.

I should start filling in dates here, just so y’all can see how long this process took. I started writing Eyes of Elisha early in 1990, shortly after giving birth to our daughter. Then I rewrote it and rewrote it. I now pick up the story in spring of 1993, when I needed to attend a murder trial.

Dubbed the “Diary Girl murder case,” it was a tabloid-made trial from the start. In August of 1992, a four-year-old girl died inexplicably in her sleep. Shortly after Christmas that year, her fourteen-year-old half-sister’s diary was found by their mother. In that diary, the teenager wrote that she had killed her little sister. The parents turned the diary over to police, and the teenager was arrested. Her trial began in spring of 1993. Her attorney was none other than the famous Melvin Belli. His name brought the media running all the more.

I attended the trial for research purposes. But the very first day I went, my antennae started waving. Something was not right. The parents clearly believed in their daughter’s innocence. So why had they given the diary to police? The defense and the prosecution both were accusing the dad of molesting the four-year-old—and using those accusations to bolster their very different arguments. Had the dad done that? And his wife covered up for him? Yet there they were in court, supporting their daughter, while the media assailed them.

I went back the next day. This time not just for research, but to see what would happen next. I ended up talking to the mother. She and I connected. I felt so badly for her. Regardless of who was guilty of what, she was going through a terrible tragedy. Each day I continued to attend, until the day the verdict was read--guilty. It was awful. The mother fainting, cameras continuing to roll, both for local and national news.

But the story wasn’t over. The family fought back. First they hired a new attorney, who set out to prove ineffectiveness of counsel against Belli. By this time I knew there was a book here. Through my contact with the family, I was able to contract their exclusive story—they could give it to no one but me. They still cried their daughter’s innocence. I told them I would need to write the book as I saw it. But at least I would listen to their side of the story. No one else was doing that. And there was plenty of story to listen to—things that never came out in the first trial. Such as—their daughter was known, even to police, as a liar. She’d written numerous lies in her own diary—impossible lies, such as she’d been pregnant and had an abortion. That kind of information cast her diary “confession” in a different light. Why hadn’t her attorney brought that out at trial?

A Question of Innocence became my first book. Published by Avon. I sold it on a proposal. I already had an agent at this time. I’d landed him with Eyes of Elisha. Even though that story needed work, he’d been trying to sell it. Now, he turned his attention to selling my true crime proposal, and with the national attention on the case, it sold quickly.

My daughter, three at the time, had been going to a wonderful Christian daycare half-time. I placed her there full-time and began to write my book. For the time, I set Eyes of Elisha aside.

First, the interviews. Day after day. The parents, the friends. All attorneys. Police. It was a huge task. I knew I’d write the book in as fictional a style as possible—like a story unfolding. Yet every word had to be true. Scenes and dialogue were re-created, based upon interviews. I became one of the insiders of the trial, knowing all the secrets, the background things the media never saw.

The defendant, “Serena,” (named changed because she was a juvenile) went through the equivalent of three trials. After her first, we went into the hearings for arguing ineffectiveness of counsel. This is one of the biggest ironies of the legal field. A new defense attorney has to prove the former defense attorney did a lousy job. The standard for proving this is very high, as it should be, else we’d see overturned convictions all the time. So new attorney and same prosecutor go before same judge. While new defense attorney argues against former attorney’s handling of the case, the prosecutor, in order to maintain the guilty verdict he’s won, now has to argue the validity of all the former defense attorney’s points. This is a 180 degree turn from what that prosecutor did in the original trial. And it’s all done with a perfectly straight face. Meanwhile, Belli hotly defended himself and his tactics—something a defense attorney shouldn’t do. Because if the attorney’s tactics are found ineffective, his former client’s conviction is set aside, and she gets a new trial. So the unwritten rule is, the defense attorney takes his knocks and wishes the best for his client.

The media was back, of course. I learned a lot about the news and their 60-second sound bites at that time. I’d be in the thick of things at court, come home and watch myself and the others on the news. Hm. Quite a bit of difference between what I knew and those sound bites.

By the time all was said and done in this case, and my book was written, it was the beginning of summer 1994. A Question of Innocence hit shelves in 1995. Before the book came out, I tagged along with the family to be on Phil Donahue’s talk show. When the book was published, Serena and I appeared on the Leeza show. By then I’d rewritten Eyes of Elisha but still hadn’t sold it. I then turned to a different genre for me—women’s fiction. I’d had enough of death and autopsies for a while.

The next novel I would write would take me on a far different kind of journey . . .

Read Part 4

Friday, February 25, 2005

How I Got Here, Part 2

To answer some questions from comments posted yesterday. First, how did I start Vantage Point? I teamed up with someone already in the business who needed a writer. I got my name out there through her, then went out on my own. I never even had to advertise. Word of mouth built it into a full-time business.

Second--yes, my husband hired "Gavil." And I ate the souffle. Are you kiddin'? I'd never give that up.

Now--how did I research for Eyes of Elisha? The novel is in multiple third person POV. It covers the crime (a murder), the forensic investigation—both with the detectives’ and at the lab, and a trial. Since I’m not a homicide detective, nor a forensic lab tech, nor a prosecuting or defense attorney, I needed to talk to all of the above.

I sought out the homicide detective first—one of the best in the area. Writers, when you want something good, go to the top. The worst a person can do is tell you no. The guy was fabulous. He could give me some time because he wasn’t involved in a major trial at the moment. He came over to my home office. First I told him the general premise—here’s where the body is. You arrive at the scene, what do you do? I can still remember this guy pacing my office, acting out his part. I wrote notes furiously. I got from him not just the procedures, but the lingo. How a detective would think. The words he would use. These things are so important for making a novel feel real. Only when the detective’s words ran out did I present to him some twists in the story. Okay, now, what do I have to do to make these twists work? So he backtracked some, gave me ideas for how those twists could play out and be believable.

This two-part interview process turned out to be a very helpful technique with everyone I talked to. They were able to react to what’s presented in the crime, without any knowledge of the twists to come skewing how they’d handle the case.

Before I let the detective go, I asked him for references to a lab tech, prosecutor and defense attorney. Naturally, he’d worked with many people in these fields. He gave me top names in each. When I called each person, I’d use the name(s) from previous interviews. Invariably, they’d say, “Well, if he talked to you, I sure will too.”

I came away from those interviews with much working knowledge, and the ability to call the folks back with any new questions. I thought I’d covered my bases. Not. I’d only begun to research.

So one Saturday my husband and I were at our son’s soccer game. Standing next to me was a dad with a T shirt that had something on it about police or detectives. Being deep in the throes of my book, of course I had to jump at that. I asked what he did. His answer blew me away. He was a homicide profiler and had traveled the country, profiling criminals in unsolved crimes. Standing right next to me! Poor guy. Probably thought he’d never get away from me. I jumped up and down (more than the kids on the soccer field) and let loose with a barrage of questions. I ended up scheduling a formal interview with him, just to listen to his stories. Writers—here’s another thing. When you’re interviewing, ask your questions, sure. But just let the experts talk. They’ll give you snippets of experiences that you can use in your book. This profiler ended up being the basis for a character in Eyes of Elisha who testifies at the trial, using some of the guy’s real life experiences as testimony.

So now I had all my experts interviewed, and my head swam with knowledge. Still not enough, I discovered. As the prosecutor put it, "If you’re going to write about a murder trial, you need to attend one." He was so right. I needed to understand the aura of the courtroom, the drama of testimony. Attorneys go through three years of law school, then study for the bar. Who was I to think I knew enough about courtroom procedure to write believable scenes about a trial? Writers—please note my word of caution: watching TV crime and legal dramas ain’t gonna teach you what you need to know. In fact, they’ll skew your knowledge. Especially about the court system. Inevitably to heighten tension, TV shows and movies about courtroom scenes will show onlookers shouting out reactions, and the judge banging the gavel to quiet folks, and lawyers doing all sorts of shenanigans. That’s not the way a real courtroom works. A real courtroom is often boring. Other days it bristles with tension, but the tension is below the surface, undulating, plucking people’s nerves. And there are all these players—the jury, the judge, the attorneys, the defendant. Onlookers. The media. All these factions, until the courtroom becomes a little world in itself . . .

But at the time I knew none of this. I only knew I had to bring my courtroom scenes to life. What I needed was an interesting and convoluted local murder trial—fast.

Oh, man, did I get one.

Read Part 3

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Who Am I And Why Am I Here?

When I started this blog a few weeks ago, I jumped right in without telling you much about myself. I figure it’s time to step back for a few days and tell you of my writing journey. Promise not to make it too boring. Who knows, you writers might even pick up some hints for your own journey along the way. And you readers will see just how hard the fiction road can be.

I was born into a writing family. Mom, Dad, Uncle, sisters—all writers. So I suppose I was fated from the start. Whatever you do—don’t get in the middle of our family Scrabble games. You’ll die.

In college I majored in drama and completed the major before switching to journalism. Drama taught me a great deal about characterization, and using drama techniques in my writing would eventually lead me to write Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors.

Before I finished college I started my business that became Vantage Point, through which I wrote marketing materials for companies—annual reports, brochures, articles, etc. This grew to a full-time business for me from home—well, full-time around raising my two children. Later, my experience in this business would become key to marketing myself as an author.

But I really had a heart to write fiction.

Meanwhile my husband, Mark, was busy running his company. He’d use my intuition skills when he wanted to hire a new person in upper management. Mark and I would take said person out to dinner. I’d look him/her over, get a sense of trustworthy levels, things like that. So one night we took this guy to dinner. Mark and his board (full of mucho smart venture capital people) had agreed this was the next V.P. of Sales for the company, based on his experience and interviews, etc. Now it was the intuitive wife's turn. We took him to a great restaurant overlooking the San Francisco Bay—a restaurant known for its soufflĂ© desserts. And it hit me—my first major What If? What if I felt something slimy about this guy—after everyone else had said he’s the greatest, and my husband was ready to hire him? Would Mark listen to me? I mean, what if I even sensed the guy had done something really bad? . . .

And so the idea for my first novel, Eyes of Elisha, was born.

I wrote whenever I could, around kids and my Vantage Point projects. Mind you, I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned how to write fiction on that book. Well, began to learn. I wrote the thing, and rewrote the thing, and rewrote the thing. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and read and read and read. I found that my learning came 50% from writing and 50% from reading/studying. I read how-to-write-fiction books. I read novels, pen in hand, marking passages. In this way I learned how to deal with symbolism, foreshadow, POV, description, characterization, and on and on. I studied like crazy and walked around, talking to myself.

During the process of writing Eyes of Elisha, I realized I needed to do something called research. My research would lead me to the most unexpected of places—all the way from a dad standing next to me at a soccer game to appearances on national TV. Ya just never know.

Part 2 tomorrow.

Part 2-10
Part 11-20
Part 21-30
Part 31-40
Part 41-50
Part 51-60
Part 61-end

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

First Person POV Perspectives

Here’s my take on the three subcategories of first person POV. (I briefly mentioned two of these on Monday, 2/14.) This is providing that the story is written in past tense. Stories written in first person present tense are something else altogether.

First person, immediate past perspective. The protagonist is telling the story minute by minute, just after events have happened. In these stories, the protagonist doesn’t know what’s going to happen next.

First person, not-quite-so-immediate past perspective. The protagonist tells events some time after they’ve happened—often after the entire story has occurred. In this perspective, even as the protagonist begins the story, he/she knows what is to come and can allude to future events.

First person, distant past perspective. The protagonist tells events that happened long ago, often in his/her childhood. This is the hardest POV I know. It requires that the author find two voices—one for the younger character as events unfold, and one for the older character who’s narrating the story, and who may insert lessons learned about life every now and then. Transitioning between these two voices is tricky.

Writers—if you’re going to write in first person, make sure you know which perspective you’ll choose.

I haven’t written in perspective #1. Don’t know why, because it’s probably the easiest. This is because it’s more akin to the past perspective of third person. My Hidden Faces suspense series is written in perspective #2. I really like this perspective. Annie, the forensic artist protagonist, is telling each story after the entire story has occurred. This allows her to say some things as narrator that she couldn’t say in perspective #1. For example, note the first line of chapter 1 in Dead of Night (out in April):

The moment before it all began, I was folding clothes in my bedroom.

I think this perspective is way cool because it allows me to insert little snippets like this to build suspense. Only thing is, writers have to be very careful not to overuse this, especially at the end of a chapter as a hook. That is, a chapter ending sentence like: If I had only known how much I would need that prayer. I may do this once a book, but even then, I consider it very carefully. Because it can come across as a “cheap hook.” And—ehem—a cheap hooker is not something I want to be.

Now here’s an example of perspective #3, taken from Cast A Road Before Me, book #1 in my women’s fiction Bradleyville series (published about 4 years ago):

One of the lessons I learned in that summer of 1968 was that there’s a line in each of us that can be crossed—a boundary that separates what we are from the monsters we can become . . . I see this now, but I could not understand it then. Nor could I understand that a person so pushed will only cross back once the enervating whirl in one’s head slows of its own accord. And so when it happened to Lee, I made one mistake after another—I cajoled; I cried; I yelled—as if I could reach him.

It was after midnight when he banged on our door.

That last sentence will transition the narrator’s older voice back into a scene—which happened many years before.

Y’all with me? See how the various perspectives really make a difference in the way the story is told? Any comments, questions? If not, we’ll turn to a new topic tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Back to First Person POV

A quick response to Becky’s comment from yesterday. She said “bouncing” scenes in books makes her head hurt—too many quick-change POVs are confusing. I need to clear up my meaning. When I used the term “bounce,” I meant that scenes had to keep moving, not drag down with too much description or unnecessary words. This can be true for two-page scenes as well as 10-page scenes. Scenes that are moving so fast that you readers can’t keep up just plain need fixing. Ah, Becky, hang in there. I’ll get you to read one of my suspense novels yet.

Okay, back to how I handled first person POV for my Hidden Faces series. I’ll need to tell you the story of how Web of Lies, book #4, was developed. Last summer I’d written three Hidden Faces books in first person POV, using the techniques I discussed last week. Next up—final book. I needed to come up with this thing that every book needs—called a plot. How to get my protagonist in trouble again? She’s mighty smart and cautious by this point in her life, thanks to all that’s happened to her.

Meanwhile, I had another hanging issue. I’d written two books in a former suspense series featuring Chelsea Adams, a woman who has visions. Ever since then readers have bugged me for a third in the series. So I got this brilliant idea. How about bringing Chelsea Adams into the Hidden Faces series? Have her and Annie team up? I could end two series at once (at least for now), and a second main character meant Annie wouldn’t have to take all the heat alone. I asked my editor and marketing guru at Zondervan what they thought. They said go for it.

So I ended up with two protagonists—but wait a minute. This series is written in first person, which meant Chelsea wouldn’t have a POV. How to fully characterize a protagonist without a POV? Of course, all other supporting characters had been characterized through Annie’s eyes, so this concept wasn’t new to me, but a protagonist was something else. No, Annie would have to stay main protagonist, with Chelsea as a very strong supporting character—a chum by her side.

When the heat started building in Web of Lies, I actually ended up with more of an ensemble cast. Yes, I remained in Annie’s head, but with lots of characters around, and her perceptions of those characters, it gave the story more of a multi-main character feel. A few times I did wish for multiple POV for all these characters, but I just couldn’t do that. So I had to make first person POV work as it’s never worked before for me—showing all the thoughts of these others characters through Annie’s eyes.

So there you have it—the POV story of Hidden Faces. Bottom line, after much slogging around, I found ways to use the strength of first person POV while alleviating its weaknesses.

There is one more thing I’d like to discuss before moving to a new topic. Some days ago I mentioned the three kinds of first person POV, having to do with perspective. Many authors get this “huh?” look on their faces when I mention these subcategories. I think I’ll go into that in a little more detail tomorrow, and give some examples of each.

Read Part 7

Monday, February 21, 2005

"Bouncing" Scenes

I had intended to get back to POV today, but I want to respond to a comment from last Friday. Becky wondered about my saying that “readers expect scenes to bounce.” Does this apply to all genres? she asked.

To that, I’ll give my favorite firm answer: sorta, kinda, yes and no. First the “yes” part. I was talking about the short attention span of readers today, based on how we see TV shows and movies filmed. Plus, many adults nowadays grew up on Sesame Street, which is very short-scene oriented, with lots of colors and stuff goin’ on. Or if they didn’t grow up on it, they watched it with their own kids. You put that together with adult drama today, plus with all the multi-tasking things we do in this high-tech world. We talk on the phone, read an email and chat online all at the same time. Plus, there’s so many books out there to choose from to read. And, there’s always our nemesis—TV. If a book’s boring, turn on the Tube. Or play a video game. Sheesh, talk about fast-paced. You take all of this together, and I do think it has an effect on readers’ expectations. They are more easily bored. Which mean we writers need to keep our stories moving.

Second, the “no” part. I was thinking of suspense when I said scenes have to bounce. This, more than any other genre, has readers who’ve been fed the quick, intense scenes of TV and movies. Just look at the way some of the TV crime and courtroom dramas are filmed. Camera shots literally bounce, like the camera was being hand-held. Quick cut-aways from one character to another. That kind of filming makes my head hurt. But we see it more and more today. So now you suspense writers out there want to sit down and write a rollickin’ good suspense, and look at what you’re competing with for readers’ attention. That’s why suspense scenes have to bounce.

Of course there are other genres in which the books can have a more languid feel. I’ve also written women’s fiction (and love writing it). That genre gives me time for deeper characterization, more introspection of the character, etc. Then if you go into what we call literary novels, most scenes don’t bounce at all. In fact, very little can be happening amid all the introspection and description and backstory.

Still, however, for these genres, I issue a warning. You are writing for today’s market, not the market of the classics era. Today’s reader isn’t real patient with long passages of description or little happening. And believe me, when you have little happening in a scene, and you’re describing for paragraphs on end, or being introspective or whatever, your writing better be primo. Because that’s all you’ve got going in a scene like that—the beauty of the writing.

So, writers, be careful. Don’t think you can let your guard down because you write in a more languid genre than suspense. You readers out there, any comments?

That’s enough for today. We’ll try getting back to POV again tomorrow.

Friday, February 18, 2005

First Person Challenges in "Hidden Faces"

Continuing the conversation from yesterday, here are some things I did to make the first person POV work for my Hidden Faces suspense series.

1. Added a third person POV for the Bad Guy. Yes, here’s the cheating part. This is a technique that’s being done more and more these days. James Patterson’s suspense novels are a good example. I think other suspense authors have used it for the same reasons I have. Thanks to today’s chaotic world of TV and multi-tasking, readers expect scenes to bounce and the story to be full of action. That is hard to do with only one character throughout the entire book. In my books, Annie carries 90-95% of the story. The Bad Guy chapters only run about two pages, then it’s back to her. By the way, these chapters are in different type for quick identification by the reader.

When I began writing Brink of Death in first person, I didn’t know I’d mix in this second POV. (Remember, I didn’t even know the first person part until after 10,000 words—you beginning to see the trials I go through when I write?) But I quickly hit a real problem with pure first person—the chapter hooks. To do a chapter hook well, you can’t have the reader turn the page and find the answer to the lingering problem in the first paragraph of the new chapter. There were times when I put Annie in a situation where I thought, “Doggone it, I really need another character to switch to, and leave this conundrum with Annie hanging for a while.” When I hit upon the Bad Guy chapters idea, I went back and stuck them in at high times of chapter hook tension for Annie. This really kept the story hopping. So I continued to use this technique as I finished the book, making sure to place these chapters at key points.

Also, per our discussion last week of keeping the tension moving, these Bad Guy chapters allowed me to introduce the second kind of tension in the story—tension in which the reader knows what’s coming, or at least a part of it, and the protagonist doesn’t know it.

2. Gave Annie a unique feature—a very visual “projector” mind. It works like this: when Annie hears someone tell events, or even when she’s just imagining things, she does it visually. The “personal projector” that resides in her head clicks on, spewing out the scene in vivid Technicolor. This allowed me to do three things. (A) Add all kinds of scary snippets (from Annie’s wild imaginings) to increase tension. (B) Have Annie, through her mind, jump to places where she isn’t physically present in order to give the reader an idea of what’s happening there, (C) Allows the reader to jump into the head of another character who is telling a crucial sequence of events.

I got this idea from the one time I watched CSI on TV (just to see what all the hoopla was about). That show has short cut-away scenes that depict what happened during a crime. For instance, if the investigators are talking about how a bullet entered someone’s body, you’ll see the entry of that bullet into tissue. I thought it was a way cool idea. And I thought, hm, how would a written version of that technique work? I’d have to find a way to transition in and out of that flash scene without totally discombobulating the reader. Here’s what I came up with. First, Annie would need to tell the reader about her “projector” brain. Then I’d need to use all the visuals available to me—line skipped before and after the cut-away scene, italic type, and a switch to present tense. Here’s how the technique looks when the reader is introduced to it in Brink of Death. (Set-up: Annie has already mentioned her “projector” brain. She’s standing outside a house while investigators are inside, examining the body of her friend Lisa, a murder victim.)
Without warning by brain popped in another sequence of film and turned on the projector. Up flashed a gruesome image of the scene now occurring in the Willits’ house. A close-up of Lisa

lying where she fell, all privacy stripped away in the presence of exploring, exacting strangers. Her eyes are open and fixed, lips parted, spittle down the side of her mouth. Her colorless face lights in the flash of an investigator’s camera. A few feet away a plainclothes detective squats to view injuries, pointing without touching to a contusion on her face . . .

I squeezed my eyes shut, forcing the scene from my head.
Since Annie knows something about crime scenes, she’s able to imagine this sequence of what’s happening. The reader has gotten a flash look of a scene where the first person protagonist is not present. And with Annie simply waiting outside to hear results, tension has been increased so that her waiting isn’t boring to the reader.

I’ve now written all four books in the series using this technique in all three way mentioned above. It’s worked wonderfully. Easy to say that now. But when I first thought of it, I got very nervous. Could I pull it off? What would my editors say? And what would readers think the first time they came upon it?

I’ve taken the time to explain this technique not because I think you writers out there ought to copy it verbatim. But to show that, even in the narrow confines of a writing “rule” such as first person, there are innovative ways to get around those confines. Look for ’em in your own stories and see what you come up with.

Yesterday I promised to talk about one more way I alleviated the first-person-one-protagonist-only problem in Hidden Faces. I’ve gone on plenty long enough for today, so I’ll get to that next week. Check back Monday for that and other continued discussion on POV.

Read Part 6

Thursday, February 17, 2005

First Person POV

Before we continue with POV, some quick housekeeping. Yesterday someone suggested that this blog is receiving so few comments vs. number of people reading because a commenter had to register first. I had it set that way so folks who just happened upon the site couldn’t anonymously make nasty comments. But it did seem to hinder feedback from regular readers. I’ve now taken off that restriction, so comment away without registering. I do ask that you be kind enough to sign your name, however. In the end, the more feedback I hear from you all, the more effective this blog will be.

I did receive a comment yesterday from Stuart. Very thought-provoking. Stuart took up my challenge about writing in first person singular and said why he's doing it. His phrase about an "alien perspective" intrigued me. This will be an interesting novel to read when it's published. Stuart, thanks for showing me how this POV does work for you.

Okay, now to the first person POV issue. What did I learn about writing a four-book suspense series in this POV? It’s doggone hard, more so with each book. Here’s why.

Obvious first reason—you’re stuck in the protagonist’s head. As I’ve noted, that character better be mighty interesting to carry a whole book. But using first person in suspense goes beyond just this challenge. Because the reader is only in the protagonist’s head, and because suspense is supposed to be page-turning and exciting, that means the protagonist has to carry all that action by herself. That’s tough. How ’bout when the action’s going down with other characters? Does the reader just miss out? For example, if the cops pick up a suspect and question him, and I want to show that scene, Annie, my character, has to be there. So I have to establish a believable reason for her presence. Or when the Bad Guy is up to his no-good tricks, and I want to show that, how can I? He’s certainly not someone Annie’s hangin’ out with.

I found two ways around these probems. I’ll discuss them tomorrow.

Second reason—only one protagonist for four books. Said protagonist therefore has to find herself in major do-or-die trouble four times in a row. How to pull this off and maintain believability for the character? I mean, with each book, she’s surely going to be more savvy, less trusting. She’ll be more protected by others and more protective of herself. So how in the world is she still going to end up in trouble by the fourth book? Lemme tell ya, this was not easy. Character motivation and growth is big stuff with me, and I just couldn’t have Annie approach each new story as if it were her first. She had to display the growth she’d experienced in the previous book(s), or readers would have gotten ticked at me in a hurry.

After much cabinet-kicking, I figured out a way to deal with this challenge, too. Again, more on that tomorrow.

For now, let me finish this with a word to the writers, then to the readers about first person POV. Writer—if you’re proposing a three or four book suspense series, think long and hard before you decide on using first person. Especially if your suspense is fast-paced and tense, with lots of danger. This is going to be hard for you to pull off for the same character time after time. I know first person POV is commonly used for the detective, or “private eye” story, but these are different, in that they tend to be more mysteries than suspense. Suspense involves more action, more consistent intensity, while mysteries can play out more slowly. I’m not telling you to avoid first person—I obviously didn’t. I do want you to go into your series fully understanding the extra challenges you will face by choosing this POV.

Reader—if you read a rollickin’ good suspense in first person, give that writer some extra kudos. He’s pulled off a difficult feat. Start paying attention to the challenges of the story. How did the character end up always in the middle of the action? How did the character keep you engaged for the entire book? Try to imagine the story told from the third person multiple POV. Can you? If the writer’s done a good job, you won’t feel like you’ve missed out on any part of the story, because through the protagonist’s eyes, you’ve fully seen the thoughts and actions of supporting characters.

I have to admit, even though I kicked a lot of cabinets, especially when writing book #4, I’m still glad I used first person POV for my Hidden Faces series. But I did use some techniques to make the task easier. One of ’em, you purists might call downright cheating. We’ll see. More on this tomorrow.

Read Part 5

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

POVs Continued

Yesterday I ended with the question “Am I crazy?” Rather rhetorical, if you ask me. I could go into all sorts of tangents with that one, but since we’re talking POV, I’ll try to explain how I ended up writing my Hidden Faces novels in first person, when it’s not exactly the easiest POV for a suspense series. (Suspense readers—if you’ve just joined us, scroll back to Monday for definitions of POV.)

When I proposed Hidden Faces (featuring forensic artist Annie Kingston) to Zondervan, I never thought about it being in first person. I did have the sense that it would be Annie’s story, however. So I sort of generally thought about using third person singular POV. However, I didn’t mention POV in the proposal at all. Truth is, there’s a whole lot of things I didn’t mention. Like, for instance, the plots. I hate writing proposals. I kinda said, okay, there’s this forensic artist, see, and here are some supporting characters and where they live. In the first book a 12-year-old’s gonna witness her mother’s murder. And after that, um, stuff happens. Stuff will also happen in books 2 and 3. (I didn’t propose a book 4, but Zondervan wanted one anyway.)

Well, fudging on proposals is one thing. And selling’s way cool. But then the rubber hits the road, and I gotta write the books. So I sit down to write book #1, Brink of Death. I start to write in third person singular—a POV I’d not used before. I write about 10,000 words. Doesn’t feel right. The POV is weak. But neither do I see the story as using multiple POVs. Oh, man. Now I’m in trouble. The contract for this series is long signed, and I’ve already received the first half of all four advances. I’d better come up with a solution quick.

Under the circumstances, there is only one solution—write in first person. I balk at that. What will my editors say if I spring this on ’em? I think a lot and pray more. Walk around talking to myself. Finally I go back and change the 10,000 words to first person. That’s it! The story’s rollin’. It’s something I feel inside when I know I got it nailed. I write the whole book in first person without ever bothering to tell my editors I’ve chosen that POV. You know what? Neither one even commented on it. ’Cause the story was right, using it. And when the POV’s naturally right, it doesn’t stand out. You just can’t imagine the story any other way.

There are three things to discuss from here. (1) Why I think third person singular POV is weak. (2) Why I’ve discovered first person POV to be so hard for a suspense series—now that I’ve written all four books. (3) How I ended up, shall we say “enhancing” the first person POV in Hidden Faces.

(1). Third person singular POV. Yesterday I talked about the strengths of third person multiple POV, starting with the obvious fact that the story can be told through the perspectives of more than one character. The basic strength of first person is its intimacy with the protagonist. You are totally in his (or her) head, seeing the world the way he sees it, hearing his voice describe things rather than the author’s narrative voice. In the middle of these two opposites sits third person singular. The story is still told using “he” or “she,” but only through the viewpoint of one character throughout the book. For the life of me, I can’t find the strength in this POV. It lacks the multiplicity of third person, and also lacks the intimacy of first. The reader is still stuck with one character’s thoughts the whole story, without ever being in that character’s head as fully as possible. So I ask—why write a novel this way? A short story, okay. But a whole book?

What say you readers and writers out there? (I know you’re out there, ’cause my counter says so, even though you’re mighty quiet.) Enlighten me with some feedback.

Read Part 4

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Third Person Multiple POV

I’ve written two suspense novels in this POV—Eyes of Elisha and Dread Champion. These stories couldn’t have been written any other way. They involve multiple characters facing various challenges, all of which together leads to the crisis/climax of the story. I gotta admit I really used the multiple part of this POV. I had over a dozen POV characters in each of these novels. That’s a whole lotta stuff goin’ on.

This, of course, is the obvious reason why third person multiple POV works so well for many suspenses—you can see what’s going on with multiple characters at once. But exactly how does this ability to jump from character to character help the story?

1. Keeps up tension. This is a biggie for suspense novels. Think of tension as a rope pulled tight. During the course of the story, that rope should not be allowed to slack. Slack = boredom. Problem is, how to keep the rope tight during the quieter scenes? Well, there’s all kinds of answers to that problem, but using a multiple POV is one of the foremost. If one character is at a quiet moment, another character can be plotting heinous acts, and a third can be running to catch heinous plotter before it’s too late.

2. Keeps up pace. This goes along with tension, but there’s a difference. Actually, pacing comes first. The right pacing = tension. Bad pacing = that “boring” word again. Think about it. You’re reading a good suspense novel in third person multiple POV, and you get to the crisis/climax, where everything culminates and it’s do or die time. Have you ever noticed what often happens at this (or any other) high action point of the book? Scenes get shorter. Why? So you can jump from one character’s POV to another more quickly. What does this do? Increases the pace. At this point, everybody’s doing something at once, and you want to see it all. So the author jumps around, blam, blam, from one character to another. You get pulled here and there until everything’s totally frenetic. The story’s at a high pace. Which means high tension. And you are flipping pages. (Assuming everything’s written well, of course.)

3. Alleviates boredom from one character. If the story’s written in first person, you see only what that character sees and thinks. You’re stuck with that character the entire book. If that’s the case, the character better be doggone interesting. With third person multiple POV, you get to know numerous characters on that intimate level. You might pick a favorite.

If I had to guess, I’d say reason #3 is the foremost in why some readers choose to read only multiple POV stories. Some just plain won’t read first person. As far as I’m concerned, these folks need to be swayed ’cause their narrowmindedness is making them miss out on some mighty good stories. I’ve had quite a few letters from readers who say they don’t like first person POV, but they read one of my novels in that POV and ended up liking it. The thing with first person, especially in suspense, is that it’s so much harder to write. And therefore so much easier to do badly. Perhaps readers who’ve sworn off first person POV have only seen it done poorly. If that’s the case with you, I urge you to give it another chance.

So if third person multiple POV is way easier to write for suspense, why on earth did I choose to use first person for my current series? Am I crazy? Tune in tomorrow.
Read Part 3

Monday, February 14, 2005

Point of View

Last week I glided across the subject of Point of View (POV). So how ’bout we stop and take a look at the topic this week. For you writers, the topic may help you decide what kind of story you want to write next. For you readers, the topic will give you an understanding of how different kinds of stories work, and why you like certain types of writing over others. First, my personal definitions of various POVs I’ll discuss:

Third person multiple—story is told from the perspective of more than one character and uses “he” and “she.”

Third person singular—story is told from perspective of only one character, using “he” or “she.”

Omniscient—story is told from a removed and roving perspective, allowing reader to flick in and out of many characters’ heads within one scene. Uses “he” and “she.” This POV is not used much today, although it was common in the days of the classics.

First person, immediate perspective—character tells the story just after each event happens, using “I.”

First person, past perspective—character tells a story that took place some time ago in his/her life, using “I.”

A quick note about the last two definitions. Many writers are unaware that different kinds of first person POV even exist. But the differences can make a real distinction in the way the story is told. More on this another day.

I’ve written in numerous of the above POVs one time or another. I have not written in third person singular POV. Started out to do it once and couldn’t. I personally find it to be a weak POV. (More on this later, as well.) And I don’t write in the omniscient POV because my editor would bong me over the head.

So what’s the best POV for suspense? Here’s my firm, bedrock answer: it depends upon the story.

Many novels automatically require using the third person, multiple POV. In general, I’d say this is the easiest to use. Stories of this type evolve by showing the reader, usually in chronological form, sequences of events in various characters’ lives that build up to the crisis/climax. If you think about it, you’ll realize this is the POV that movies typically use. We viewers jump from scene to scene, seeing what different characters are doing. Perhaps because we are so used to seeing this form of storytelling in movies and TV, and because it’s easiest to write, third person multiple POV has become the most often used in novels. Tomorrow we’ll look at its strengths for the suspense novel.

Do you prefer to read/write in a particular POV? Do you have a particular question about the POV topic? Hit the comments button below to post a response.
Read Part 2

Friday, February 11, 2005

Keepin' the Tension, part 2

Yesterday I talked about injecting tension into the drawing sequence in Brink of Death. Gotta do something to keep the story moving when you’re getting technical. The second book in the Hidden Faces series, Stain of Guilt, was harder for me.

The beginning part of Annie’s (the forensic artist’s) challenge is more of a psychological one. She’s faced with drawing a 20-year fugitive update of a man wanted for double homicide. First she has to conduct interviews to figure out what makes this guy tick. Why would a quiet accountant end up killing two people? She has to find out how he thinks, what he eats. Would he have a tendency to gain weight? Were there certain facial expressions he used that would have caused more wrinkling? All of these things could effect how he had aged in twenty years. After the fact-gathering comes the sequence when she’s doing the drawing.

Okay, so I’m planning this book. And all the above looks interesting to me, but it’s not exactly the Brandilyn Collins rollercoaster experience I promise my readers. How to make it that way?

This is when I start to sweat.

One of my fundamental rules is never, never give away the story. So I’m gonna talk in generalities here. First, I give Annie some angst coming into the story. After all, she’s been through a harrowing experience in Brink of Death. This ups the ante within her psyche right away. Then I’ll throw in the first big, bad twist. Next I’ll ratchet things up to such an extent that Annie has to complete the interviews and drawing—now, or else. Meanwhile every now and then I switch to the third person “bad guy” POV. Through these short chapters we see what Bad Guy is planning, and it isn’t pretty.

A quick aside. No doubt in the future I’ll discuss switching POVs. For now let me just say that this second POV in what otherwise is a first-person story allows me to add the second kind of tension in these books. Tension #1—character and reader don’t know what will happen, but whatever it is, it promises to be baaaaad. Tension #2—character doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but reader does know at least part of it, and it’s definitely baaaad. This can make for some real suspense as reader watches character careen toward big, bad scene.

Back to Stain of Guilt. The drawing scene doth approach. But now it’s royally set up. It happens at night, with Annie already spooked. She doesn’t know what Bad Guy is doing, but she’s scared to death over the possibilities. Meanwhile reader does know what Bad Guy is doing, and is all tensed as a result. One major crash of these two people is a comin’. With this set-up, I can weave in the thread of Annie’s quiet work in a room by herself along with the thread of her frightened thoughts, plus the action every now and then of Bad Guy. Suddenly, a “quiet” scene of drawing alone in a room ain’t so quiet.

Bottom line, the trick is to add those other threads, or layers, or whatever metaphor you want to use. Meanwhile readers are getting an interesting look into a field (in this case, forensics) they know little about, without feeling like they’re being lectured. They can come away from the story thinking it was well grounded in appropriate research—and still wanting that night light.

That’s my hope, anyway. If I’ve pulled that off, I done good.

Comment button is below. Your feedback is always welcome.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Keepin' the Story Moving

Every day when I sit down to write, I pray the same beleaguered prayer—“Oh, please, God, don’t let me be boring!” I find it plain difficult to keep my stories moving at the pace my readers have come to expect. So what have I done in the Hidden Faces books when my protagonist, Annie, is working on a forensic art project? I mean, how exciting is watching somebody draw, or sculpt, or whatever? Here are a few answers I’ve come up with:

1. Inject tension into the scene. This tension spills from all the trouble in which Annie currently finds herself. Her concentration will shift from what she’s doing to the fears she’s facing of what’s to come. I don’t want to give away any story lines, so I’ll talk about this generally. In Brink of Death, Annie must interview Erin after she (Erin) witnesses her mother’s murder. The girl is still half in shock and petrified of seeing “The Face” of the killer again—even on paper. Annie is petrified that she’ll mess up the assignment (in this book, forensic art is new to her). These books are in first person from Annie’s point of view. But I use lots of perception on her part of what Erin is thinking/feeling, based on Erin’s actions, expressions, and tone of voice. And I inject Annie’s fears of the future—What if I get this drawing wrong, what if I skew Erin’s memory? We could be looking for the wrong man while the real killer roams among us . . .

2. Draw out the tension until it reaches a breaking point, then end the chapter. This is the ol’ “hook” that we writers talk about. In Brink of Death, for example, I tried to make the tension build and build to the moment when the drawing’s finally done, and Erin must lower her eyes to look at it. By this time, she’s shaking and so is Annie. Everything has built to this moment. Everything else that happens in the story depends on Erin’s reaction to what Annie has drawn. So she lowers her eyes . . . Boom. End chapter.

3. Don’t let that taut line go now! Egads, the next chapter has to keep the tension just as much. So I don’t want to answer the hook’s “what happens” question in the first paragraph. Instead I introduce another problem—one Annie and Erin must work on together. Here we go again—build tension, built it, build it. Until the whole sequence finally ends with a major event—of course, at the end of a chapter.

However, I have to remember that tension is only one thread of this entire sequence. The other thread is what’s actually happening—the interview questions, Annie drawing—all the things a forensic artist must do, the materials she must use. The trick for me is to interweave these two threads into a complex tapestry of emotion and action. The forensic art process is fascinating in itself--to a point. However it could become boring very quickly if I spend too many paragraphs on that thread without a break.

In the second book of the series, Stain of Guilt, I found the fugitive update drawing sequence harder, because in that story, Annie’s alone. Plenty of activity has led up to the scene, but yikes, how to pull the scene itself off well, without letting down the tension? Annie doesn’t have another character to play off of. What’s an author to do? More on this tomorrow.

Read Part 2

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Research, Part 2

To finish my thought from yesterday—did you know that there are over forty ways to test for fingerprints? Or how about this general rule of thumb for shotgun spray: the spatter will be an inch wide for every yard away the shooter is from the target, after the first yard. Fascinating, huh.

Looking through my idea box, I find information on such topics as this: Effect on the lungs after drowning. Critical Curve Speed Formula, used to help determine how a car accident occurred. Matching dental records to an unknown victim. Three basic fingerprint types. Various (little known) places on a car where VIN numbers are stamped. Different colors of smoke based on type of explosion. Determination of age, gender and race from bones. And on and on. Never know when I might need these snippets of information.

My current series, “Hidden Faces,” features forensic artist Annie Kingston. There are four books in this series. Brink of Death and Stain of Guilt are already on shelves. Dead of Night comes out May ’05, and Web of Lies in Feb. ’06. I have learned some way cool stuff about the field of forensic art through writing this series. By the way, I should give kudos here where kudos are due. I’ve greatly relied on the textbook Forensic Art and Illustration, by nationally known forensic artist Karen T. Taylor. If you’re thinking of writing about this field, this book is a must.

Forensic art is a pretty big field. In each of the four Hidden Faces books, I’ve featured a different challenge for Annie. In Brink of Death, Annie interviews a highly traumatized twelve-year-old who has witnessed her mother’s murder. How do forensic artists pull memory from such a victim, and then translate that memory into an effective composite? In Stain of Guilt, Annie draws a fugitive update of a man wanted for double homicide who’s been on the lam for twenty years. How does an artist age someone? Fascinating, how the personality and basic habits of the person to be aged is as important as his actual facial features. In Dead of Night, Annie must draw the dead—unidentified victims of a serial killer. How does the artist recreate a face from a body that may not be in great shape? In Web of Lies (my "spider book"), Annie does a facial reconstruction based on a skull. The process for taking only a skull and ending up with a fully drawn picture or a sculpture of the living person is truly remarkable.

But research isn’t the main focus to readers of suspense. After all, I’m not writing a textbook. Readers want action; they want story. My books promise a rollercoaster of a story. Yikes. How do I keep that story moving, never letting down the tension, while injecting the technical aspects of what Annie must do? I have struggled with this issue in each of the four Hidden Faces books. I’ve managed to come up with a solution that works for me. I’ll talk about that tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Last week Fed Ex brought me a flat package from the Philippines. Right address, wrong name. I stood in my kitchen and eyed it warily. I didn’t know the sender, didn’t know anybody in that country. It had to be a bomb. Or a threatening note from some crazed stalker. I opened it with caution, at the same time laughing at myself. Girl, you watch too much crime. Turned out the package held sale papers for a car—in pesos. Who knows how these people got my address, but it wasn’t intended for me.

So then my brain got to working. Unknown package, sent by mistake. Opener sees something she shouldn’t see. Hm . . .

Such is my life of writing crime thrillers. I get a nosebleed, I think blood splatter patterns. I see someone on a cell phone, I think do you know how your movements can be traced? In short, crime is always on my mind.

My life has become constant research as to how crimes are solved and sent through the legal system. I’ll cut out articles in the paper about some unique crime or twist in a trial. I watch Court TV—Forensic Files, The Investigators, The System, etc., and programs such as Cold Case Files on A&E. I take notes and throw ’em in my idea boxes sitting on my credenza. I have learned some way cool stuff! All kinds of poisons, how killers think, legal system antics and forensics galore. To me the forensics are the most interesting. How one tiny fiber solved a case. Or a branch on a tree proved a murder, when the body had never been found. What blood splatter shows us; gun residue issues; toxicology tests; how an anthropologist determines sex, age, and gender from a skeleton. I could go on and on.

I am careful not to taint my constant research. So I don’t watch TV crime dramas—CSI, Law and Order, etc. These shows may be based on reality, but they must adhere to the conventions of fiction in one hour of TV. So they’ll fudge on certain techniques, or who does what. In order to keep characters to a minimum, they’ll have the techies doing things that other specialists would do. I’ve had someone read one of my books and make a comment as to how a crime would have been investigated—“Well, anybody who watches Law and Order would know that . . .” Blat. Push wrong answer buzzer here.

My husband can’t understand it. “How do you watch those horrible shows?” Especially with my high degree of empathy for people. Well, how does anyone working in the crime field do it? You shut off the emotions and look at it purely analytically. Solving the crime is like piecing together a mind-boggling puzzle. It’s fascinating. For example, did you know . . .?

Sheesh, I’m going too long. More on this tomorrow.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Why Christian Suspense?

Some years ago a man asked me what I did for a living. I told him I write Christian fiction. "Christian fiction?" His forehead creased. "I thought Christianity was all truth!"

Well, it's a good thing my Christian suspense novels aren't "all truth." 'Cause some bodaciously bad stuff happens in 'em.

The suspense genre in the Christian market has exploded in the past five or so years. Before that time, I think folks in the industry were scared of it. "How in the world are you supposed to mix the Good News with violence and terror? Agh!" Today not only can you find plenty of Christian suspense novels, you can take your pick from all manner of subgenres. And every month it seems a new Christian suspense author comes along.

The question is--why do I choose to write suspense? Why not romance, or historicals, or contemporaries--something a little easier on the nerves? My mother wonders this too. She thinks I'm getting more warped by the minute. She's probably right. My stories do tend to be . . . intense. But the truth is, I have an amazing, fun freedom in writing Christian suspense. I get to tell all sorts of scary stories--and inject the hope of God in them. That's the best of both worlds, if you ask me.

Truth is, we do live in an evil world. But the truth doesn't end there, thanks be to God. The truth ends with the fact that God's power can help us live, even be victorious, amid this evil. Not to say bad things don't happen to good people. They do--in real life, and in my books. It is to say that followers of Christ have been given the awesome authority to go before His throne and ask for help in times of trouble--even big, bad trouble. Especially big, bad trouble.

Lest you think I sound too much like a preacher--let me set you straight. I'm not one. My #1 job as a Christian novelist is not to preach. It's to write the best rollickin' story I possibly can. If I can get people caught up in my novel, if I can make 'em forget to b r e a t h e . . ., then I will earn a certain trust from them. And once I earn that trust, readers may be more likely to hear the message that's woven in. On the other hand, they may not. I know non Christians who love my books despite the spiritual thread. That's their prerogative. At least they're coming back for more.

In this blog I want to cover all sorts of aspects of Christian suspense, both for readers and writers. I want to talk frankly about some hard issues such as boundaries within the genre, dealing with people who disagree with what I write, meeting reader expectations, and the toughest part of all--writing the books. It is never an easy task for me. I'd like to tell you stories behind the stories--why I wrote certain books, where the premise came from, how the process unfolded. I may quote some reader letters--the good and the the bad ones. (Always anonymously, of course.) And since I teach fiction writing, I may even throw in a little of that now and then--as it applies to my genre. I'll be looking for feedback from you, so don't be shy in posting your comments.Question to leave you with, on this first blogging day. Why do you read Christian suspense? Or why don't you? What kind of changes within the genre would make you read it more? (Click on "comment" below to reply.)

Tomorrow--a look at how my daily life is effected by the stories I write.