Interview with Author Bruce Holsinger

Finding the extraordinary story right in front of you.

In episode 36 of Working Title podcast, I chat with author and scholar Bruce Holsinger. We discuss his latest novel, The Gifted School, and all things research. How the idea for his previous novel sprang from his reviewing centuries-old inventory documents, where you can find allies in your own research, tips for reaching out to subject matter experts, ways to introduce your characters to the reader, and more.

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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.


Moderating at the 2015 JRW Conference

I had to triple-check that my name does in fact appear on the list of panels for the 2015 James River Writers conference. It’s an honor to be moderated, er, to be a moderator.

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First Pages 2012 Follow-up

Following the fabulous JRW 2012 Conference, I am revisiting my earlier post discussing making the most of your first page and adding more insights I have picked up.

Dreams, Flashbacks and Backstory

Don’t do it. Do not begin your story with a dream. It’s cliche, and more importantly, as someone had noted in a prior JRW conference, dreams are inconsequential.

Do not begin your story with a flashback. If you need to inform the reader of something that happened in the past at this point of your story, then you’re starting your story at the wrong place.

Like flashbacks, a backstory does not belong on the first page. We do not need to know everything about the character(s) on the first page. Just enough to whet our interest to turn the page. Save the flashbacks and backstory for later.

Setting and World Building

There were several First Pages examples where we didn’t have a sense where or when the story was taking place and this made it difficult to follow the story. Where are we? When are we?

Even a sentence or two will do.

Along those lines, there were submissions of the fantasy and science fiction genres, but there was no hint of fantasy or sci-fi elements in the first pages. Be sure to put your reader in this alternate universe at the start. (Horseback riding and uncommon names are not sufficient to tell the reader it’s an epic fantasy tale.)

Chatter Later

A first page with conversations generally does not work (not to say that it can’t work). Dialogue at the very beginning can confuse the reader and often does not provide enough context to feel drawn into the story and identify with the characters. Invest in set up and let the chatter come a little later.

Do Not Get in the Way of Your Action

If you’re opening with an action scene, do not bog it down with detail. Strip out extraneous observations and modifiers. For example, if you are opening with your character startled awake and he or she needs to scramble to find a safe place to hide from the antagonists, do not look away to describe the beautiful dawn or digress into backstory.

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.