On Memorable Characters Panel

Me with Amy Sue Nathan, Stacy Hawkins Adams, Kristina Wright, and Bruce Holsinger.

At the 2015 James River Writers conference, I moderated the panel, “Creating Memorable Characters: Writing the Characters Readers Hold in their Hearts.” The illustrious panel included Stacy Hawkins Adams, author of Lead Me Home; Bruce Hollinger, author of The Invention of Fire; Amy Sue Nathan, author of The Good Neighbor; and Kristina Wright, author of Fairy Tale Lust.

I think it went well. Alas, there is no recording or transcript to share. Here is some of what was said that I recall:

  • Dialogue should be used to reveal character or move the plot forward, not serve as exposition.
  • Use internal monologue sparingly — too much can send the reader skimming.
  • Some writers lavish their characters with physical descriptions, while others are more stingy. However much detail you use to convey your characters’ traits, be sure they are easy for your readers to hold in their minds.
  • Perfect characters are boring and unrealistic – your protagonists should have flaws just as people do.
  • Antagonists/villains are people too. Just as protagonists should have flaws, antagonists should have sympathetic qualities. Readers should understand their motivations, even if they don’t agree with them.

I would have loved to have been a panelist here as characters are what I most enjoy about writing stories. It’s like I’m introducing beloved friends to the world. My aim is to make compelling characters collide and write down the fallout.


Interview with Author Bill Blume

Welcome to my Working Title inaugural podcast. I interview friend and fellow James River Writers’ member Bill Blume. He has written a fun teen read called Gidion’s Hunt,* published in 2013 by Fable Press. You can visit him on the web and follow him on Twitter: @BillTheWildcat.

With this debut novel, we discuss Bill’s writing process, finding inspiration in the USA network show, Burn Notice, snagging a publisher, and much more.

JP Cane with Bill Blume at his book launch of Gidion's Hunt.
At Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Va. with Bill Blume at his book launch of Gidion’s Hunt.

What did you think of the podcast? Would you like to hear more? Be sure to pick up Bill’s novel and let us both know how you liked it!

* Bill’s book was initially released under the title, Tales of a 10th Grade Vampire Hunter.

† Intro and outro music in the podcast is called, “The Strategy.”

JRW 2012 Conference, Part One

Wow. The James River Writers conference was phenomenal. This was the 10th and the best yet. Lots of thoughts, but I’ll share a link to Leila’s post, 8 Take Aways for the 2012 JRW Conference.

What I love most about the conference is the new friendships you make. If you haven’t attended the JRW conference this year, please consider going next year. You’ll love it and find it worthwhile.

First Pages 2012

I had the honor of participating in this year’s First Pages, a popular and especially fun part of the James River Writers Conference (held this year Oct. 19-21 — come join us!). Here’s how First Pages works: Brave authors submit their novel’s first page for consideration. At the conference, a dramatic reading of the selected submissions will be given in front of all the attendees and a panel of agents. After each reading, the panel will share their critique of the piece.

So today was the day that we went through the stack of submissions and chose which ones will go to the conference. We selected about 15, though it’s unlikely that all we be read at the conference due to time.

The authors’ names are left off; all we know is the genre, title and of course the first page of the manuscript. We were looking to get a wide range of genre and age groups.

With coffee and donuts in hand, we got to work and I want to share with you my general observations.

Follow the Rules!

Several submissions were tossed from the get-go, because they disregarded the requirements.

It’s important not just for First Pages, but when submitting your writing to an agent or publisher. This is especially true for query letters. Read the rules carefully and make sure your submission meets each one to the letter. Spacing, font size, margins, whatever. Remember: the default location of your manuscript is in the circular file by the agent’s desk; what you must do is to convince the agent not to put it there.

Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation

Go over your page several times just to be sure to catch any spelling mistakes — don’t rely on spell check! If you’re not sure of punctuation rules, check with a reference book. For example, we saw commas outside the quotation marks (incorrect: “Sure”, Bob agreed.), instead of inside (correct: “Sure,” Bob agreed.). Also, watch tense changes (that’s one of my weaknesses).

Read Your Story Aloud

Find a quiet room, pull up your manuscript, and read it aloud. Do not murmur it. Speak it clearly. This will solve a lot of the issues above and more that aren’t covered here. You will hear awkward sentence construction, poor grammar, breaks in rhythm or voice and more.

There is much more and I will follow up after the conference with a recap.

A sincere thank you to the writers who had submitted to First Pages. We had a great time and often wanted to read more.

Write with Meaning

This year I had gotten into listening to podcasts, though I don’t listen on a consistent basis. One of the shows I like is called Typecast, A Podcast About Writing, presented by Kevin Pang.

The particular podcast (episode 9) I’m mentioning here features Steve Padilla, a LA Times editor and writing coach. Editors of course are very important allies in your writing (though often I’m sure writers feel the relationship is more adversarial) and Mr. Padilla discusses his best tips for sharpening your writing.

One theme that he discusses throughout is the importance of meaning. In fact, Mr. Padilla argues that meaning is the most important element of writing.

“You should be obsessing about what you’re going to say, not how you’re going to say it.”

At one point in the podcast, Mr. Padilla reinforces a lesson that I have kept with me since college. I kick myself for not keeping the story the professor had us examine, so I can’t attribute it and I must paraphrase. It was a short story that opened with the female protagonist taking a bath and experiencing a heart attack. “It was my heart, it stopped.” Something like that. The professor called attention to how the sentence ended with the word “stopped.” Sentences can be structured in many ways, so choose the one that gives the most impact to your readers.

Mr. Padilla argues that simple rewording can transform a sentence from acceptable to extraordinary. “Put the best stuff at the end.”

This ties in with his point about meaning. Meaning will help shape your sentences so that you can determine what to emphasize. And a strong end will propel you into the next sentence. If you are stuck on a sentence, it’s because the previous sentence wasn’t strong enough.

What do you think? What writing podcasts do you recommend?