Nancy's Notes From Florida

Author Nancy J. Cohen discusses the writing process and life as a Florida resident.

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Posts Tagged ‘Writing Craft’

Stay in Viewpoint

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on November 13, 2017

As a beginning writer, I didn’t understand what it meant to stay in viewpoint. I was guilty of bouncing heads, or switching viewpoints within the same scene. This confuses readers because they become unsure of who is the main character. You should stay within one person’s head or else use a space break to delineate a change.

Books in the thriller genre often use multiple viewpoints, a technique that can work as long as there’s one clearly identifiable hero. If not, your reader isn’t going to care about any of the characters. Sure, you can catch their interest using bait and switch tactics. This means, you leave off each scene with one person in jeopardy before switching viewpoints with a space or chapter break. But get inside too many different heads, and the reader will cease to care. Maybe this is why I like single third-person or first person viewpoint in the mysteries I read. In a romance, it’s standard to alternate the hero and heroine’s viewpoint and sometimes this includes the villain as well. That’s okay as long as the character switch is well marked.

keeper

In revising Keeper of the Rings, one of my earlier romances that I wrote originally as Nancy Cane, I caught a perfect example of changing viewpoints in the same scene. Here’s an example:

[B’s viewpoint] Wellis, the village priest, had requested Bendyk’s presence. Now, as he sat across from the older man in the living room of his oceanfront bungalow, Bendyk fingered the medallion hanging from his neck.

“I fail to understand your meaning when you say people are straying from the Faith.” He squared his shoulders. “The turnout at the service this morning was phenomenal.”

“That’s because the villeins are putting on a pretense of piety for your benefit.” Wellis wagged his finger. “They’re afraid you’ll report to the Docent about their indiscretions.”

[W’s viewpoint] Pursing his lips, Wellis felt he should know his flock better than any representative from the central authority, such as Bendyk Worthington-Jax. He’d sent for help, realizing the situation could get out of control. After all, on whose head would the wrath of Lothar fall if he failed? His own, of course. But the golden-haired missionary, despite his zeal, had found nothing amiss.

It wasn’t Bendyk’s fault, considering how fearful the villeins were about retribution. The blasphemous talk circulating throughout the town was bound to bring dire repercussions. Wellis had hoped Bendyk would inspire a renewal of faith and, indeed, the service he’d conducted this morning had been exemplary. Perhaps his visit had done some good after all.

Bendyk faced him across a table laden with fresh fruit and nuts. The young man quirked an eyebrow. “Don’t forget it’s tithing time. The tax collector is here, even in the midst of Renewal celebrations. That’s enough cause for heightened tension.”

Wellis gave him a weary smile. “Not in this case. We’ve been fortunate to have the same agent each year. She counts in our favor and exacts a toll of ten percent on less the amount actually produced.”

Bendyk’s eyes darkened to a shade of indigo. “You mean this agent reports an inaccurate count? Why, that’s a criminal offense.”

Wellis leaned back in his chair, relishing the warm salty breeze blowing in from the open windows. His bungalow, a short distance from the ocean, stood on stilts like the rest of the houses by the shore. Further inland, other dwellings rose along a gentle slope that footed the Jerrise mountain range.

His congregation enjoyed a simple life living off the bounty of the sea and their industries of ropemaking and small boat construction. No one had enough revenue to fuel an investigation, so he didn’t see any harm in telling Bendyk of the tax agent’s favoritism.

“It appeases people,” he said with a shrug. “There’s enough grumbling about laws that don’t take into account the needs of individual districts.”

Bendyk scraped a hand through his short, wavy hair. “That’s not true. The Docents are responsible for making adjustments. If they rule unfairly, you can appeal to the Candor.”

“The Candors are concerned mainly with their own wealth. Things have gotten out of hand.”

Bendyk shot to his feet. “My father is a Candor. He’s always judged his people fairly and considered their needs.”

[B’s viewpoint – we can’t see if our own eyes look shrewd] Wellis regarded him with shrewd eyes. “Cranby is an exception. Do you deny that dissatisfaction with the Synod’s power is growing? Aren’t your services widely in demand in an attempt by local priests, like myself, to stem this tide of disloyalty?”

[W’s viewpoint] “It is the work of the Truthsayers.” Bendyk’s jaw clenched. “They seek to undermine the Faith and establish anarchy in its place.”

Footsteps sloshed outside, and Wellis held up a hand to silence his guest. “Hush, here comes the village council. I have summoned them to hear your advice. Go easy, young man. Your fiery tongue does you well in sermons but not in debate.”

I decided this scene should be told from Bendyk’s viewpoint since he’s a major player in the story. So here’s the new scene. See if it flows better and keeps your interest more.

Wellis, the village priest, had requested a private audience with him. Now, as he sat across from the older man in the living room of his oceanfront bungalow, Bendyk fingered the medallion hanging from his neck.

“I fail to understand your meaning when you say people are straying from the Faith,” he said. “The turnout at the service this morning was phenomenal.”

Wellis wagged his finger. “That’s because the villeins are putting on a pretense of piety for your benefit. They’re afraid you’ll report their indiscretions to the Docent.”

Bendyk tightened his lips. No doubt Wellis felt he knew his flock better than any representative from the central authority. But the priest had sent for help, realizing the situation there could get out of control. After all, on whose head would the wrath of Lothar fall if he failed? Yet the blasphemous talk circulating through town wasn’t evident during Bendyk’s inspection. He wasn’t surprised, considering how fearful the villeins were about retribution.

Wellis had hoped his arrival might inspire a renewal of faith. In truth, the service Bendyk had conducted this morning had been exemplary. Perhaps his visit had done some good after all.

He faced the priest across a table laden with fresh fruit and nuts. “Don’t forget it’s tithing time. The tax collector is here, even in the midst of Renewal celebrations. That’s enough cause for heightened tension.”

Wellis gave him a weary smile. “Not in this case. We’ve been fortunate to have the same agent each year. She counts in our favor and exacts a toll on ten percent less than the amount actually produced.”

“You mean, this agent reports an inaccurate count? Why, that’s a criminal offense.”

Wellis leaned back in his chair, while a warm salty breeze swept in through open windows. His bungalow, a short distance from the ocean, stood on stilts like the rest of the houses by the shore. Further inland, other dwellings rose along a gentle slope that footed the Jerrise mountain range.

“It appeases people,” Wellis said with a shrug. “I hear grumblings about laws that don’t take into account the needs of individual districts. My people enjoy a simple life. They live off the bounty of the sea, plus their industries of rope-making and small boat building. No one earns enough revenue to warrant an investigation.”

“That’s not true. The Docents are responsible for making adjustments. If they rule unfairly, you can appeal to the Candor.”

“The Candors are concerned mainly with their own wealth. Things have gotten out of hand.”

Bendyk shot to his feet. “My father is a Candor. He’s always judged people fairly and considered their needs.”

“Cranby is an exception.” Wellis regarded him with shrewd eyes. “Do you deny that dissatisfaction with the Synod’s power is growing? Aren’t your services widely in demand in an attempt by local priests, like myself, to stem this tide of disloyalty?”

“It is the work of Truthsayers. They want to undermine our Faith and establish anarchy in its place.”

Footsteps sloshed outside, and Wellis held up a hand to silence his guest. “Hush, here comes the village council. I have summoned them to hear your advice. Go easy, young man. Your fiery tongue does you well in sermons but not in debate.”

You may have noticed that I polished up the prose as well. So what do you think? Were you better able to identify with Bendyk in the second sample?

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Plot Twists

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on October 23, 2017

I always thought I wasn’t clever enough to come up with good plot twists. Short story writers have the market on this writing technique. Especially in the mystery genre, short fiction often relies on an unexpected twist for its punchline at the end.

So how can cozy writers come up with enough surprises to keep the reader turning pages? Sometimes you can plan ahead. I’ll write a synopsis before I begin writing the actual story. But something happens along the way. The characters, setting, and story elements stew in my brain, and out pops a surprise I didn’t anticipate. This is what I call story magic.

How can you get it to work for you? Review what you’ve written, and note any plot threads that you’ve introduced but failed to resolve. How about that minor character who makes a brief appearance on stage but whose role might be significant? Or the connection between two characters you didn’t expect? Or maybe a new character arrives on scene who upsets the balance among your suspects or your recurrent cast. Who is this person and how do they relate to the plot? To the other people in your story? Why did this person arrive at this time and for what reason?

In other words, pick up on clues that you’ve left for yourself. You’ll be surprised at what you find. If you are taken by surprise, so will your readers be amazed at your plot twists.

surprised

You can go back later and revise your synopsis accordingly. Meanwhile, go with the flow and see where it takes you. You’ll be pleased by your reviews when you have a few surprises along the way. Here are some of mine that are particularly pleasing in this respect:

Facials Can Be Fatal

“The story had more twists and turns than a pretzel. And I ate them all up! It is really fast-paced and kept me thoroughly engaged to the end.” Readeropolis

pretzel

“I recommend this book to those who are cozy mystery fans and enjoy a sleuth mystery with many twists and turns.” Readers’ Favorite

“The storyline is fast-paced and keeps readers guessing to the end. There were several different twists and turns this story could have taken. I was surprised at the outcome.” Socrates Book Reviews

Hair Brained

“You are always thinking and on your toes while reading this book. And when you get to the end and everything is revealed….it will blow your mind!” Cozy Mystery Book Reviews

“The story actually has a couple of mysteries within its pages and all is worked out by the end, but there are a lot of plot twists along the way.” Carla Loves to Read

“There were several twists and turns, plus many red herrings in this book. Just when I thought I knew what was going on, the author threw in a few extra curves to have me scratching my head.” Socrates’ Book Reviews

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Notes in the Night

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on October 16, 2017

When you wake up in the middle of the night after having a vivid dream or a great idea for your novel, do you scribble in a notepad or write yourself a note on your smart phone? I do the latter, so I don’t have to turn on the light. Invariably if I think I’ll remember the details later when I’m fully awake, I am mistaken. A vague recollection might return but not every nuance. Recently I had a dream that was a mystery with a surprise twist. It would work for a short story. I wrote it down, which is a good thing because right now I cannot remember a single element. Maybe as I review my notes, I’ll see it was a silly idea, but at least I will have that option.

Dreamer

Last night I had another dream. I went with a friend to my former publishing house’s NY office. I saw some faces I recognized from my days there. I got invited to an informal dinner where we were invited to choose some complimentary romance novels by their authors. I browsed the room and picked out a paranormal romance with an Indian American heroine (as in native India). I didn’t care for the other choices as I was tired of the same tropes. The editor proposed we sit together while he had food brought in and we’d discuss our works in progress. This editor took me aside and asked what I was working on. When I told him I was revising my backlist titles, he said, “Why are you wasting time working on projects that appeal to your old readers when you could be working on new ideas that will draw in all readers?”

Is this sound advice? Is someone from a higher authority suggesting I’d be better spending my time doing something new? Should I be working on the idea I’ve put on the back burner while working on these other projects? And yet, those backlist titles matter to me. I have eight romances and four mysteries to do yet, and even though they won’t require much in the way of revisions, I have to carefully read through for formatting errors and to tweak the prose here and there. It’s important to me to make these titles available in multiple formats for readers and in the best version possible.

But it’s interesting what comes from our subconscious. What do you think of this advice I received? How do you record ideas that come to you in a dream or while you’re lying in the dark?

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Keeping A Series Fresh

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on September 28, 2017

Once you’ve written several books in your mystery series, it gets harder to come up with new and interesting material. The story has to engage your senses as a writer if you want to entice readers. You’ll want to avoid repetition such as means of murder and motives. And you need to vary the locales without going too far afield. Probably the most important element is to grow your characters. Let’s look at what you can do to bring excitement to each story in a long-term series.

Growth2

1. Vary the setting within the setting. My Bad Hair Day cozy mystery series is set in fictional Palm Haven, Florida. But each story has its own milieu. Permed to Death, book number one, introduces hairstylist and amateur sleuth Marla Shore in her hair salon when a grumpy client dies in the shampoo chair. Subsequent stories involve a haunted hotel, a sports club, a wealthy family’s estate, a beauty trade show, a wedding and a day spa. Readers come to love the recurrent characters and expect to see them again, so you can’t deviate from the home town too often. I’ve taken Marla and her husband, Detective Dalton Vail, on a Caribbean cruise and later on a dude ranch honeymoon in Arizona. For me, those stories are particular fun, but I can’t do them on a regular basis. Readers like to return to the same environment which becomes a character in itself. To avoid boredom, you have to take the same background and change it up enough to keep it interesting for you and your readers.

2. Avoid using the same murder method twice. Have you poisoned a victim already with a plant potion? Use snake venom next time. Or try shooting, hanging, stabbing, bashing on the head, pushing down the stairs, etc. Avoid repetition and be creative. Also vary the villain’s motives. You don’t want two stories in a row where a jealous lover did the deed. Think of your negative motivators—greed, envy, protection of a loved one, guarding one’s reputation, revenge, righting a perceived wrong—to provide variety.

3. Character growth is critically important. Your protagonists should evolve like people do in real life. Who surrounds them in terms of family, friends, and colleagues? How do their relationships change in each story? What’s the overall emotional journey for your main character? What new person can you add to spice things up? It could be a new friend, an old flame, a secret baby, a new boss, or a romantic interest. Keeping your main character static won’t work. The protagonist must continually adapt and develop expanding goals while letting insights guide her along the way.

Growth1

4. Include a research or historical angle that excites you in a story. In Facials Can Be Fatal, I used excerpts from my father’s true life 1935 travel journal, which detailed his trip to Florida in simpler times. History plays a part in this story that includes tales of shipwrecks and pirates off the Florida coast. For Trimmed to Death, I’m researching olive oil scams. I am an olive fan so learning about this product interests me. Other topics I’ve explored have included the pet fur trade, biohazardous waste disposal, tilapia breeding, the prepper movement, and more. These tidbits of information snag my interest and provide something fresh for readers, too. Avoid info dumps, however, where you have long expository paragraphs with too much detail. Your research shouldn’t show. It should enhance your story.

5. Sprinkle in local issues or social problems that concern you. In Hair Brained, one character tells Marla about the risks to children left in hot cars. This is a big issue in Florida where child deaths from this cause are notable. It’s a preventable tragedy and I include tips for prevention in my story. My books also touch upon child-drowning prevention, another issue in a locale with so many backyard pools. These types of issues provide added depth to your story, but do it in a way that matches your chosen genre. If you’re writing humorous cozies, for example, things can’t get too serious. There are “edgier” cozies, but is this what you’re known for? You want to meet reader expectations. It’s okay to change things up once in a while but keep your author brand in mind and don’t stray too far.

6. Introduce enough of past events and relationships to clue in new readers when they pop into your series later down the road, but not too much that you give away previous plots. You also don’t want to bore your long-term readers, so keep this backstory to a minimum. It’s a delicate line to tread. Each story should feel like a standalone to newcomers but make fans happy to see what’s evolved personally for your characters in this latest book.

Bad Hair Day Mystery logo

It gets harder to find a fresh angle as you get further along in your series. While avoiding repetition, you have to maintain the setting and characters that readers have come to love. What tips do you have to offer? As readers, how do feel about this topic?

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When hairstylist Marla Vail’s best friend is hurt in a suspicious car accident, Marla assumes guardianship of her infant son. No sooner does Marla say, “Baby want a bottle?” than she’s embroiled in another murder investigation. Her husband, Detective Dalton Vail, determines the crash may not have been an accident after all. Can she find the culprit before someone else ends up as roadkill?

“This is Nancy J. Cohen’s 14th Bad Hair Day mystery, and given its vigor, humor and inventiveness, the series has a lot of life left in it.” Florida Weekly

“It is wonderful to watch Marla’s emotional journey from suburban housewife to investigator and, dare I say, Mama Bear.” Back Porchervations

“This is the 14th book in this series. It is the absolute best one so far, and they are all pretty darn good. It is fresh, believable and timely.” Escape With Dollycas Into A Good Book

“WOW- a complicated and intense mystery with strong emotional elements that may make you look closer at your own friendships and personal values.” Laura’s Interests 

“You are always thinking and on your toes while reading this book.  And when you get to the end and everything is revealed….it will blow your mind!” Cozy Mystery Book Reviews

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In case you missed my earlier guest posts, check out these topics:

“What’s in a Name?”
“Chocolate – Healthy or Harmful?”
“Killing Off a Character in Your Book
“Character Guest Post by Marla Vail”

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Writing Tips – Color Descriptions

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on April 4, 2017

Do you have trouble with color descriptions when writing your novel? I can see colors fine except when I have to describe them in a story. Then I’ll say a character has brown eyes, is wearing a green top with khakis, and has her nails painted red. Remember the childhood refrain you learned to help you remember the colors? “Red and orange, green and blue. Shiny yellow, purple too. All the colors that we see, live up in the rainbow…” Anyway, that might not be an accurate rendition, but it’s how I remember the song.

rainbow2

Rainbow colors alone don’t do justice to the myriad of shades out there. So I’ve written color charts for myself as a writing tool for when I need more interesting variations. You can also classify by categories, such as:

Jewels—pearl, amethyst, emerald, ruby, sapphire, jade, garnet
Flowers—rose, lilac, daffodil, hibiscus, orchid
Minerals—onyx, copper, gold, silver, malachite, cobalt
Nature—thundercloud gray or leaf green or canary yellow
Food—grape, cherry, orange, lemon, lime, cocoa, coffee, fudge, chocolate, peach, nut brown, pumpkin

IMG_0928  pumpkin

One of the best resources is a department store catalog. You can’t get more imaginative than their names for towels, sheets and sweaters. Thinking white? How about pearl, ivory, parchment or snow?

You get the idea. And so I’ve created a file listing colors which I’ll share with you here. My only request is that you tell me what I’ve missed. Here we go.

· BLACK: Jet, ebony, charcoal, raven, crow, coal, pitch, soot, ink, velvet, cast iron, midnight, onyx, obsidian

· BROWN: Chestnut, auburn, nut, mahogany, walnut, hazel, fawn, copper, camel, caramel, cinnamon, russet, tawny, sandy, chocolate, maroon, tan, bronze, sun-ripened, coffee, rust, earth, sod, dusty, mud

· GRAY: Silver, metallic, gunmetal, steel, cloudy, ashen, foggy, slate, leaden, stone, mist, platinum, smoky, mercury

· WHITE: Milky, chalk, frost, snow, ivory, cream, pearl, opal, parchment

· RED: Blood, apple, ruby, rusty, brick, fire engine, pink, rose

· ORANGE: Tangerine, fire opal, sunset, kumquat, pumpkin, apricot

· GREEN: Emerald, jade, apple, leaf, sea, grass, sage, basil, pea, olive, malachite, forest, lime

· BLUE: Cobalt, indigo, sapphire, turquoise, azure, sky, navy, royal, deep sea, ink, ice, denim, Cerulean blue

· YELLOW: Blond, lemon, daffodil, canary, topaz, golden, tawny, sand, saffron, citron, sulfur, amber, straw, primrose

· PURPLE: Lavender, violet, lilac, amethyst, orchid, mauve

Bougainvillea  Flamingo Nursery3

Colors also convey emotions. For example, mud brown and toad green have a less pleasant connotation than chocolate brown and sea green. Browns, oranges, and reds are so-called “warm” colors while blue and green are “cool” colors or more soothing. So choose your hues carefully to enhance a scene.

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What’s your secret to describing colors? Do you prefer rainbow colors or more specific shades?

 

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Six Stage Plot Structure – Part 2

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on March 16, 2017

Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure, Part 2 – The Inner Journey

The second part of Michael Hauge’s talk on Six Stage Plot Structure at the Florida Romance Writers Cruise Conference deals with inner conflict. If you missed Part One, read it Here. For the sake of expediency, I use the term “heroine” but these principles apply to the hero as well.

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Disclaimer: Any mistakes in this summary are due to my misinterpretations.

The writer wants to elicit emotion in the reader. You can convey emotion and show us what’s going on without the need for dialogue or internal reflection. i.e. A lonely guy is staring at the empty furniture in his house. We get a sense of loss.

Character, desire, and conflict are the key components to storytelling. “Stories are participatory. We become the hero or heroine in the story.” We want to create a movie in the reader’s mind.

Modulate the tone and pace of the story to heighten emotional response. Here Mr. Hauge showed us clips from the movie “UP” as an example.

 

Key Components of the Inner Journey

Longing or Need

This is a desire that is expressed but the protagonist does nothing about it. It’s a hole in the character’s soul. A longing is expressed while a need is not acknowledged. This need is usually for a connection with another person.

Wound

A painful experience from the past is still driving the protagonist’s behavior. Most typically take place in adolescence. In “Up,” the older man’s wife Ellie dies. His wound is that he never gave her the adventure he’d promised.

Belief

We formulate a belief to explain what caused the wound, and to prevent it from happening again. In “Up,” the guy believes he failed by not keeping his promise. In a romance, it might be the heroine’s belief that if she loves again, her heart might be broken like before, and she might not survive this time. Or, an abused child believes he deserved punishment. The belief is never true but it is always logical.

Fear

We harbor the Fear that the painful experience will happen again. The Belief is very specific as to what may cause it to reoccur. For the abused child, the fear might be of letting anyone see who he truly is. An abandoned child might believe that anyone he gets close to will disappear. In “Up,” the man’s fear is that if he lets go of Ellie, he’ll lose all connection to her (i.e. he’ll lose her again).

Identity

The Identity is the false self we present to the outer world that allows us to feel safe. It protects us from the fear that grows out of the belief that was created by the long-ago wound. In “Up,” the main character has turned into a curmudgeon who lives in an empty house with Ellie’s things still there. If he sells the house or lets anyone inside, he might lose his memory of her. He must protect his memory of her at all cost. Our identities keep us feeling safe. It’s our emotional armor. But it makes us believe this is who we really are.

Essence

The Essence is a person’s true potential if they let go of the Identity. We see who this person really is underneath their façade.

The heroine of a story must leave her identity behind and live fully in her essence. This is the only way to achieve the outer motivation or visible goal.

Identity versus Essence is the Inner Conflict. The heroine’s inner journey or character arc takes her from living fully in the Identity to living fully in the Essence.

Looking at the Six Stage Plot Structure, in Stage One which is the Set Up, the heroine is living in her Identity. She believes the wound is in the past and over. Then an Opportunity arises that moves her to a New Situation. In the New Situation, the heroine is still in her Identity but she gets a glimpse of what living in the Essence would be like. She sets a goal.

To achieve this goal, she must live in the Essence. In the film “Up,” the main character realizes his wife Ellie viewed their marriage as an adventure. He throws out their furniture, which has served as his emotional armor, and he moves on to a new adventure. He goes into his Essence and achieves his goal.

The inner journey involves moving from Identity to Essence. This exposes the Fear, and so the protagonist retreats to her Identity before finally embracing the Essence. The Aftermath shows the reward where the heroine has found the courage to move beyond her Fear and live her truth.

This character arc should be a universal truth, while the outer plot is specific to the story. i.e. To live fully, we have to be willing to let go of the past and move forward.

This transformation should be gradual and not an epiphany. During the third stage, the character makes Progress. She vacillates between her Identity and her Essence. She feels vulnerable at getting a glimpse of her Essence and retreats back into her Identity.

In a romance, the biggest weakness is when there’s no solid reason why these two people should be together except the author wants it. Attraction at first sight is okay, but physical chemistry only takes you so far. This does not make for an enduring relationship. Why are these two people in love? They fall in love because they are each other’s destiny. The hero is the only one who sees beneath the heroine’s Identity and appreciates her true Essence. And vice versa. They connect at the level of the Essence. When there’s a love triangle, the guy she’s going to leave represents her Identity. The guy who is her destiny represents her Essence.

Conflict takes place at the level of Identity. Connection is at the level of Essence.

At the Change of Plans, the characters may not recognize their goal of pursuing each other but the reader does. You can put them into a competition or force them to work together. At the half-way mark, they can acknowledge their goal but still resist it.

Complications (Stage Four) ensue as the outside world intrudes. The heroine might feel safe but unfulfilled in her Identity. She can have it all, but she has to get past her Fear. She may think, “I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve my goal. Just don’t ask me to [blank] because that’s not me.” You know it’s the right thing if [blank] scares her.

At the Major Setback, both characters retreat to their Identities to feel safe. In a romance, this is the Big Black Moment.

The heroine’s reflection character (best friend, sidekick, etc.) says, “What are you doing? This isn’t you. Go after him.” The reflection reminds the character of who she truly is.

The hero and heroine make the Final Push (Stage Five) to achieve their goals and win each other’s love. They return fully to their Essence. The Aftermath (Stage Six) shows their transformed existence.

For more information on Mr. Hauge’s one-on-one coaching, visit StoryMastery.com

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Six Stage Plot Structure – Part 1

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on March 13, 2017

Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure, Part 1- The Outer Journey

Michael Hauge teaches a terrific class on Six Stage Plot Structure. Michael has coached screenwriters, producers, stars and directors on projects for every major studio and network, as well as top public speakers and corporate leaders. He’s the author of Writing Screenplays That Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, as well as his best selling lecture with Christopher Vogler, The Hero’s Two Journeys. Michael is also a popular speaker around the world. We were fortunate to have him with us on board Independence of the Seas for the Florida Romance Writers Fun in the Sun cruise conference.

 

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Disclaimer: Any errors in this summary are due to my misinterpretation.

 

Key Components of the Outer Journey

Set Up (Stage One)

Here’s where you introduce the protagonists and show them in their normal life. You’ll want to establish an emotional connection with readers. Create empathy with the main character and connect the reader to her before you introduce any flaws. How do you do this? For the sake of expediency, we’ll use the term “heroine” but these principles apply to the hero as well.

1. Create sympathy by making her the victim of undeserved injustice or misfortune.
2. Put your character in jeopardy, but it doesn’t have to be physical. It can be the threat of loss for something vitally important to the character.
3. Make your heroine likeable by showing her kindness or generosity. Show that she is well liked by others.
4. Make the character funny. She can be funny by saying things that are unfiltered and not politically correct.
5. Give her a skill set that we admire. For example, we admire people who can get things done. They have the power to accomplish things.

Next show the protagonist as being stuck or in a state of inertia. They’re tolerating a situation or lying to themselves, and something is missing from this person’s life. Another character in the story tells them what they need to learn in order to progress.

In a romance, do we meet the hero and heroine separately before they come together, or do they come together at the outset? Determine if you’re using one or two viewpoints for these characters. If we meet the heroine first and encounter the hero when she does, you can use the singular viewpoint.

Opportunity (Turning Point 1)

Something happens that has never occurred to the main character before. It jolts the heroine out of a normal life and she must react. This can be a good or bad event, but either way, it will result in the heroine’s preliminary goal, a desire to move to a …

New Situation (Stage Two). Now the protagonist must figure out what’s going on and how to react, and in response will formulate a specific, visible outer motivation.

Change of Plans (Turning Point 2)
The heroine will begin pursuing the outer motivation.

Most Hollywood movies involve a heroine pursuing one or more of five visible goals:

1. To win the love of another person or a competition
2. To stop something bad from happening
3. To escape a bad situation
4. To deliver or transport an item of value
5. To retrieve something of value and bring it to safety or possess it.

Emotion should grow out of conflict and not out of desire. In a romance, you have to delay pursuit of the love interest. Or, have them meet but then go back and show their normal lives beforehand. Or, force them together but give them different goals. The heroine should have another goal than pursuing the guy. For example, “You two have to work on this project together. The outcome will determine which one of you gets the promotion.” Hold back her admission that she’s falling for the guy by giving her a different goal to pursue.

In a mystery, the dead body presents the Opportunity. The sleuth makes a discovery at the one-quarter mark. A new event leads to a new goal, i.e. “It looks as though we’re going after a serial killer.”

Progress (Stage Three)

The heroine’s plan seems to be working. She’s moving closer to her goal but still has conflict. She must bypass or overcome obstacles until the midpoint or Point of No Return (Turning Point 3). Something happens that forces the protagonist to make a full commitment to her goal. In a romance, it might be the first kiss, or the first time your couple goes to bed together. Now they are not able to return to the life they once had.

Complications (Stage Four)

It becomes more difficult but more important to reach the goal. If the heroine loses the hero now, she risks losing her destiny. But the outside world is closing in and the conflict becomes greater and greater, until the main character suffers a Major Setback (Turning Point 4). All appears lost. In romance jargon, we call this the Big Black Moment. This is when the two lovers break apart.

Retreat and Final Push (Stage Five)

Each character will try to return to the way they were in the Set Up. They go back to the original situation, but it’s no longer satisfying. So the protagonist makes a final push to achieve her goal.

The Climax (Turning Point 5) is where the heroine faces her biggest obstacle. She either achieves her goal or she doesn’t.

In the Aftermath (Stage Six), we see the heroine in her new life. In a romance, we see how the hero/heroine will be living together. It’s the reward at the end of the goal. They’ve reached their destiny.

For more information, visit StoryMastery.com

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Coming Next: Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Plot Structure, Part 2 – The Inner Journey

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Writing the Mystery – Howdunit?

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on February 7, 2017

When writing a cozy mystery, you need to decide upon crime scene details even though interpersonal relations and not forensic investigations are your story’s focus. Here’s an example of what this means. For my next book, I decided to start the tale at a bake-off contest, but the setting bothered me. Our city fairs are held on athletic fields or a flat stretch of grass in a park. This doesn’t leave much opportunity to stash a dead body.

I was telling this to my manicurist and mentioned that I needed a more interesting setting. She suggested Bedner’s Farm as a possible model for my story. The next day, my husband and I drove north to visit this farmer’s market in Boynton Beach. See my post for a report on this visit. The varied structures and grounds were ideal for my purposes, but I’d move my fictional site nearer to Marla’s hometown. Marla Vail is my hairstylist sleuth and the star of the Bad Hair Day Mysteries.

Bedner's Farm  sheds

Now what? Francine Dodger is the target of the festival’s Find Franny scavenger hunt. I got this idea by looking up harvest festivals online. This drove me to research living scavenger hunts until I had an idea of how mine would work. Think about the five W’s when you’re in this phase.

trophy

Who ends up dead? Let’s say Francine is the victim.

Where is she killed? How does she arrive there? Is she lured on purpose, or it is a crime of opportunity? Did the killer follow her? Determine Where-dunit.

How
does he do it? She could be drowned in a ditch. Water-filled canals line the U-pick rows. But other customers might be milling around there. Will it look like an accident or right away be identified as a homicide? She can fall down a silo. But what would make her climb up there in the first place? Or she could be runover by a tractor.

What knowledge does the killer need? If the murder involves an equipment accident, it’ll have to involve someone who knows to operate the machinery. Ditto the hazards inside a silo. You don’t want to point the finger at a particular suspect like the farmer, because it’s too obvious. Maybe give one of the other characters a secret history of working on a farm or of selling agricultural machinery.

If you poison a victim, who has knowledge about the type of poison used as well as access to it? Is it fast-acting enough for the circumstances, or do you need a slower more insidious death? What are the particular symptoms? Consider your means of murder very carefully when you’re making these decisions so your story will sound plausible.

When does it happen? Think about not only the time of death, but also why not a week or a month ago? Why NOW?

How does the killer get away? Does he have blood on his clothes? Are his shoes wet or muddy? Is he able to blend back into the crowd? How does he act when he encounters the heroine?

Now let’s throw a wrench into the works.

What if it’s a case of mistaken identity? He thought he had killed one woman but he got somebody else who was similarly attired. How will he react upon seeing his intended victim alive and well? This leads to another set of problems. It means he can’t see the victim’s face before he kills her, or he’ll realize it’s the wrong person. So again, we go back to Howdunit?

Once you figure out these details, you’ll have to determine how your amateur sleuth stumbles across the dead body. And this is when the story actually begins.

If you missed my previous posts on this topic, go here:

Writing the Mystery – Whodunit
Writing the Mystery – Whydunit
Five Stages of Writing

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End of Chapter Hooks

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on November 2, 2016

Creating a hook at the end of a chapter encourages readers to turn the page to find out what happens next in your story. What works well are unexpected revelations, wherein an important plot point is offered or a secret exposed; cliffhanger situations in which your character is in physical danger; or a decision your character makes that affects story momentum. Also useful are promises of a sexual tryst, emotional aftermath of a love scene, arrival of an important secondary character, or a puzzling observation that leaves your reader wondering what it means.

hook

It’s important to stay in viewpoint. Otherwise, you’ll lose immediacy and this will throw your reader out of the story. For example, your heroine is shown in first person viewpoint placing a perfume atomizer into her purse while thinking to herself: “Before the day was done, I’d wish it had been a can of pepper spray instead.” What happens later on? This character is looking back from future events rather than experiencing the present. As a reader, you’ve lost the sense of timing that holds you to her viewpoint. You’re supposed to see what she sees and hear what she hears, so how can you observe what hasn’t yet come to pass? Thus you are tossed out of viewpoint while being forewarned things are going to get nasty.

Hanging

Foreshadowing is desirable because it heightens tension, but it can be done using more subtle techniques. Here’s another out-of-body experience: “If I knew what was going to happen, I’d never have walked through that door.” Who is telling us this? The Author, that’s who. Certainly not your character, or she’d heed her own advice. Who else but the author is hovering up in the air observing your heroine and pulling her strings? Same goes for these examples:

“I never dreamed that just around the corner, death waited in the wings.” Who can see around this corner if not your viewpoint character? YOU, the author!

“Watching our favorite TV program instead of the news, we missed the story about a vandalized restaurant.” If the characters missed the story, who saw it?

“I felt badly about the unknown victim, but it had nothing to do with me. Or so I thought.” He’s speaking again from the future looking back.

“I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong.” Ditto to above.

“I was so intent on watching the doorway, I didn’t see the tall figure slink around the corner.” Then who did spot the tall figure? You got it–the author.

Although these examples are given in first person, the same principles apply to third person limited viewpoint. Your reader is inside that character’s skin. She shouldn’t be able to see/hear/feel beyond your heroine’s sensory perceptions. By dropping hints about future events, you’re losing the reader’s rapt attention. Avoid author intrusion by sticking to the present. End your chapter with a hook that stays in viewpoint.

Here are some examples from Permed to Death, #1 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries:

“This was her chance to finally bury the mistake she’d made years ago. Gritting her teeth, she pulled onto the main road and headed east.” (Important Decision)

“There’s something you should know. He had every reason to want my mother dead.” (Revelation)

“Her heart pounding against her ribs, she grabbed her purse and dashed out of her townhouse. Time was of the essence. If she was right, Bertha was destined to have company in her grave.” (Character in Jeopardy)

“Her heart heavy, she crawled into her car. Until this case was solved, she couldn’t call anyone her friend.” (Aftermath of emotional scene)

[Heroine has been poisoned] “She allowed oblivion to sweep her into its comforting depths.” (Physical Danger)

“Todd Kravitz, the old lady’s son. Don’t you remember? He was the male model who posed with you for those sexy shots.” (Secret Exposed)

The same techniques apply to romance novels as well as mysteries. Ending a chapter with a confrontation between the hero and heroine will make the reader turn the page, especially if you’ve presented only one character’s reaction. Anticipation rises for the other person’s response. How will this event change their relationship? In addition to emotional turning points, escalating sexual tension will keep your reader eagerly flipping pages.

Divorce,fight,problems - Young couple angry at each other sitting back to back

Decisions that have risky consequences can also be effective. For example, your heroine decides to visit her boyfriend’s aunt against his wishes. She risks losing his affection but believes what she’s doing is right. Suspense heightens as the reader waits to see if the hero misinterprets her action. Or have the hero in a thriller make a dangerous choice that puts someone he cares about in jeopardy no matter what he does. What are the consequences? End of chapter. Readers must keep going to find out what happens next.

bomb

To summarize, here’s a list of chapter endings that will spur your reader to keep the night light burning:

1. Decision
2. Danger
3. Revelation
4. Secondary character’s unexpected arrival
5. Emotional turning point
6. Sexual tension
7. Puzzle

Sprinkle the lucky seven judiciously into your story and hopefully one day you’ll be the happy recipient of a fan letter that says: “I stayed up all night to finish your book. I couldn’t put it down.” That’s music to a writer’s ears.

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Character Archetypes

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on September 27, 2016

Archetypes are recurrent themes found in works of literature and film. Take the Star Lord and the green-skinned girl in Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s a cocky womanizer. She’s a feminist warrior. Don’t you love their snappy dialogue before they realize how much they care for each other? Here’s a list of other familiar archetypes.

AMNESIA: Is he/she married, a parent, a missing bride/groom, presumed dead? Did he kill someone? Did someone try to kill him? Is she a witness to a violent crime? Is he an undercover agent who got hurt by the bad guys? American Dreamer, The Bourne Identity

BRIDES: Marriage of convenience, fake fiancés, mail order bride, runaway bride/groom, green‑card, royal, shot-gun wedding, jilted, terms of the will, mismatch, Vegas spur-of-the-moment wedding (or hasty drunken decision). Runaway Bride, Father of the Bride, Wedding Crashers, Sleepless in Seattle, What Happens in Vegas

Bride

BUDDIES/PARTNERS: Two or more pals go on a road trip and have a wild time.

CHILDREN: Abandoned, lost, orphaned, adopted, biological, inherited, stolen, kidnapped, secret baby, true identity unknown, switched‑at‑birth, kids playing matchmaker for single parents. Home Alone

DISGUISE: Hidden identity, switching places, surprise identity: True Lies, The Prince and the Pauper, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Freaky Friday, The Princess Diaries

identity

FISH OUT OF WATER: Enchanted, City Slickers, Kate and Leopold, Outlander

MAKEOVER: The Princess Diaries, My Fair Lady

MISMATCHED COUPLES: Bad boy/Good girl, Cowboy/Lady, Pirate/Princess, Real Estate Developer/Preservationist, Wanderer/Homemaker, May/December, Womanizer/Feminist, Duke/Governess, Mentor/Protegé, Boss/Employee. Romeo & Juliet, Beauty and the Beast, Six Days Seven Nights

RAGS TO RICHES: Cinderella, Pretty Woman, Ever After, Maid in Manhattan

 

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REUNION: Former lovers, estranged spouses, lost love, thwarted romance, divorced but still in love. Sweet Home Alabama

SECRET POWER: Harry Potter series, Superheroes like Superman and The Flash

SINGLE PARENTS: Struggling working mothers, clueless divorced dads. Three Men and a Baby, Baby Boom. Many of the Hallmark TV movie rom coms.

TWINS: Switched identities, mistaken identities, trading places to fool people and having the tables turned on them instead. Parent Trap, New York Minute

Twins

Think about the books on your shelves at home. Do you repeatedly buy the same types of stories? Does this tell you something about the plot devices that appeal to you? Have you ever tried writing a story with your favorite theme?

Now let’s see how this applies to writing a murder mystery. As a writing exercise, select a theme above and randomly pair it with a setting mentioned in the post below. What do you get? Can you weave a mystery around this combination?

For example, “Rags to Riches” meets “Library.” So…we have a Cinderella-type woman who is hoping to better herself, so she gets a job in an important library where she means to meet a guy. Think government center or historical library, not just your average small town place. But instead of meeting the man of her dreams to escalate her social status, she stumbles across a dead body in the stacks. What’s worse is that she’s accused of the crime. You see what I mean? Now share your combination and how you’d plot a story.

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