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Friday, June 29, 2007

Avoiding Pitfalls in Your Proposal, Part 2

In the previous post and now in this one, I've created a greatest hits roundup of things to avoid in your fiction proposal, specifically the sample chapters. These tips also apply to your fiction manuscript as a whole, especially the opening chapters.

These two blog entries are parts 3 and 4 of a 4-part series of tips you can read at my Web site. Parts 1 and 2 (which are Tips 33 and 34 at the site) constitute a great overview of how to be sure you've put together a fiction proposal that sidesteps the pitfalls and gets an editor's attention.

Read and heed this series of tips and your proposal will be ahead of those from 99% of the unpublished Christian novelists out there.

Last time we looked at pitfalls 1 to 6. Now we'll look at pitfalls 7 to 12.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #7: Low Stakes

This is something I could've mentioned in Tip #34 because it's often visible in the synopsis. But you need to treat it in the sample chapters, too.

You need to establish very early in your book what the OR-ELSE consequences will be if the hero doesn't succeed in his or her goal. If the stakes are absent, or simply lame, the reader won't care.

Absent stakes are when the author expects us to just read all about this interesting person who apparently doesn't want anything and is in no danger of anything unpleasant happening if s/he doesn't accomplish it. Low stakes are when the hero wants something but it's so mundane and boring that the reader just doesn't care.

Now, that's not to say that you always have to have your protagonist trying to save the universe. Stakes can feel high to the reader even if what the hero wants is something that might otherwise feel small to the reader but has become important to her because it's so vitally important to the protagonist.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #8: Low Suspense

Low suspense is pretty close to #7 but bears discussion on its own. If you establish a substantial OR-ELSE (or SO-WHAT) component in your story you're going to almost always solve this one automatically.

This is the presence or absense of the ticking time-bomb, which I discuss at length in Tip #20.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #9: Low Conflict

This one is also related to the previous two. Who or what stands opposed to what the protagonist wants?

Your hero, as the old adage goes, is only as strong as your antagonist. A wimply antagonist (or an easily achievable goal) means that the protagonist didn't have to be very heroic to overcome him.

What's your hero up against? Make sure it's a serious opponent or obstacle or you won't have stakes, suspense, or conflict. Or, for that matter, an interested reader.

You find your conflict by figuring out what stands in the way of what your hero wants. And you find out what your hero wants by reading Tip #4.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #10: Going into a Flashback Too Early

I pretty much despise flashbacks. I know they can be marvelous tools in the hands of a master storyteller, but there has been probably only one unpublished manuscript I've ever seen that used flashbacks well. All the others that used flashbacks (and we're talking hundreds of others) did so in a way in which the flashbacks were nothing but telling (and in Tip #29 you see how I feel about telling.)

If you must use a flashback, don't do it in the first 50 pages of your book. Please. The reader hasn't gotten grounded yet in this story and this timeframe before then, so she can't bear being yanked into another timeframe with, possibly, a whole new set of characters. It's too early.

And please don't have some horrible thing happen and then reveal that it was only a dream (or a flashback). Talk about your fiction cliches.

Why do you feel you must use a flashback? To explain something to the reader? If that's your reason, just say no. Explaining is telling, and...well, read Tip #29.

Whatever needs to come out about your story or main character can and should come out organically through the action of the tale you're telling right now. Consult the dumb puppet trick (Tip #21) for good ideas on how to do this without resorting to a flashback.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #11: Jumping to a New Viewpoint Character Too Early

In the same way that a reader can't bear jumping to a new timeline before she's grounded in your story, so she can't bear seeing through someone else's eyes too early in the story.

You need to stick with one viewpoint character and one storyline for at least the first 40-50 pages to give your reader time to get grounded and "affixed" into your primary story and main protogonist.

This is when you get her invested into the story. This is where you hook her to stick around for the whole book. Cut away too early and she'll spit out the hook and go on her way.

Authors often think that throwing in lots of variety early on, including a variety of viewpoints and storylines, will engage the reader. Unfortunately, doing so has the reverse effect. The reader doesn't know what's going on, whose story this is, or whom to pull for. It's disorienting.

Now, you can do a prologue from a viewpoint other than your protagonist's point of view. The reader can handle this because she understands that this prologue is something she'll need to know about later and she trusts you to fill her in about it later. It can work to build suspense and establish your ticking time-bomb (see Tip #20), and it doesn't disorient the reader.

But once you get going in the main story with the main viewpoint character, don't break away for a good long time.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #12: Not Providing Adequate Descriptions

I'm of the school of thought that says you should describe your characters and, even more importantly, your settings, and that you should describe them well and early.

If I as an acquisitions editor got 2 or 3 pages into someone's sample chapters and I still had no idea where the action was taking place, how many people were there, what anyone looked like, whether it was day or night, or any of the rest of what you're supposed to cover in basic description, I would probably put the proposal away and start working on my rejection letter.

Description not included results in a reader not thrust into your scene. And a reader not thrust in your scene is a disengaged reader, one who puts down your book and looks for something that will engage her.

I've covered descriptions in great detail in Tips 5-8.

Every Roundup Must End

Sounds like a Western, doesn't it? I just mean that this roundup of pitfalls to avoid is now at its end. [wipes tear]

May these words of counsel grant you the springy legs of an antelope that you may hurdle over every obstacle and land in the middle of a big, fat publishing deal.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Avoiding Pitfalls in Your Proposal, Part 1

Part of the game of writing fiction is getting published. And part of the game of getting published is creating proposals that will be read (and loved, we hope) by agents and acquisitions editors.

After thirteen years of selling proposals (as an author) and evaluating proposals (as an acquisitions editor) I've learned a few things that can either help or hurt your chances.

At my main Web page I have written a 4-part series on how to avoid the mistakes and pitfalls that can doom your proposal. Parts 1-2 discuss mistakes to avoid in your proposal's front matter (cover letter, synopsis, etc.), and parts 3-4 cover mistakes to avoid in your sample chapters.

The following is part 3 of that series. (On my Web page it's Tip #35.) Since the sample chapters you'll send with your proposal are the first 40 pages of your fiction manuscript, these tips are actually talking about how to start your novel out well.

One housekeeping note: throughout this article I refer to other Tips in my Fiction Writing Tip of the Week column, from which this excerpt is drawn. You'll have to come to the site to read those other tips.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #1: Weak First Line

As an acquisitions editor I give a lot of attention to first lines. They are, to me, a very quick indicator of an author's skill level.

I can't tell you how many novels I've read that begin with someone pulling up in a car (usually in front of a house) or with a weather report. Yawn. Often they begin with telling: Jim had always been a shy boy...

Or else the first line will be trying to do too much at once: "Jim's long beard dripped with gravy from the state dinner with the Russian ambassador as he punched in the code to defuse the bomb planted there by the female Ukranian terrorist who was so beautiful it broke Jim's already trampled heart."


Let your first line be three things: simple, engaging, and appropriate to set the tone for the rest of the book. You get only one first line. It has the most impact of any sentence in your entire book. Don't fritter it away.

My best first lines:

Once he decided to kill himself, the rest was easy. (From Virtually Eliminated.)


Today I'm going to kill a man in cold blood. (From Operation: Firebrand.)

Do they pass the simple, engaging, and appropriate test? Yes. (It doesn't hurt to make your first line be about life and death, btw.)

Sample Chapters Pitfall #2: Lack of an Engaging Hook (a.k.a. Not Starting with Action)

This is similar to the previous pitfall but extends beyond the first line. You've got to hook me with your first line, true, but you've got to set the hook and then reel me in with the scene that follows.

When I say "start with action" I don't mean you have to blow something up. It doesn't have to be an action sequence, per se. It just needs to be something interesting to the reader. Engaging.

It should involve someone doing something. Making a decision or executing a plan or having a realization or committing a crime. The opening scene is a great time to establish your villain and the stakes of your story, and to get the ticking time-bomb going (see Tip #20).

Sample Chapters Pitfall #3: Telling Instead of Showing

Show vs. Tell is a basic element of good craftsmanship. Getting it wrong is a good way to get your proposal rejected lickedy split. Read Tip #29.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #4: POV Errors

Mastery of point of view (POV) is another foundational element of good fiction writing that, if absent, will get you rejected in a hurry. Read Tip #30.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #5: Shallow Characters

Shallow, unrealistic, undifferentiated characters will get your novel rejected post haste.

Read Tip #32 and go here to see one means of getting the character help you may need.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #6: Lack of Good Beats

Beats are one of those areas in which you very quickly reveal your level of mastery in fiction, whether you know it or not. This is something subtle but powerful. Often the author's facility with beats is that ineffible something that causes editors to conclude that he or she is actually a craftsman worth acquiring.

Read Tip #31 to learn about beats.


Next time I'll continue to look at how to hurdle the obstacles in your opening chapters that can otherwise block your chances at getting the best response your proposal can generate.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Interview with Cathy Elliott!

Today I’d like to welcome Cathy Elliot to our suspense site! She's going to chat with us about her cozy mystery series. Cathy, what was your initial reaction in finding out you sold your first book? In other words, tell us about. . .THE CALL

Cathy: What a great memory! After a weekend out of town, I came home to a phone message from my agent saying, “Cathy…we have a sale! Give me a call.” That was it, but it was enough. I was so happy I simply couldn’t quit smiling. I was drowning in gratitude, as well. So many talented writers submitting their work for years and hoping to get a call like this one, yet I had been given this great blessing. It was a blend of delight and joy and fear and thanks that I’ll never forget.

Lisa: I'm sure you won't ever forget the moment! Tell us some of the background behind the idea for your stories and about the story itself.

Cathy: Because I collect antiques, I set my story in an antique shop with lots of opportunities for my amateur sleuth to stumble into trouble. The book is full of things I love – like cats and quilts and small town charm and family. All stitched together with suspense, of course. Here is the story summary:
An antique dealer acquires a vintage vase with a list of familiar names inside. At first, she is just curious, but when one person listed meets with a freak accident and another goes mysteriously missing, Thea gets nervous and then gets involved, because…her name is next!

Lisa: Love the hook. I find in my own writing that I often grow alongside my characters, especially spiritually. Is there a character who you relate to and who made an input on your life?

Cathy: A Vase of Mistaken Identity features a sweet, elderly quilter named Mary-Alice who, through an inner prompting, prays for Thea. When Mary-Alice explains her earnest prayers on her friend’s behalf, Thea is moved by God’s loving-care toward her. I am reminded by Mary-Alice’s obedient example to stop my busyness and pray for others when I hear His prompting, as well.

I also love Mary-Alice’s boldness for the faith in her everyday life. The fictional character was built on the memory of a dear saint who never feared a discussion about her Savior out loud or to anyone. She knew what (or should I say Who?) was really important in this life…and the next.

Lisa: What is the number one thing you’ve learned from your writing journey?

Cathy: That it is possible to live your dream. Number two? Creative waiting.

Lisa: Any future plans for your writing you’d like to share? Any specific dreams you’d like to accomplish in the area of writing?

Cathy: Although I hope to do more books in the cozy genre, I’m interested in stretching my abilities a bit. I am currently working on a suspense mystery as well as Thea’s next cozy adventure. We’ll see what happens.

Specific dreams? For me, it really is all about the craft. I long to polish my prose so each book shines more brightly than the last.

Lisa: Because I know there are many aspiring writers out there, can you share any tidbits of wisdom on getting published?

Cathy: There are SO many tidbits! But let me encourage the pre-published writer that if you study the craft and put pen to paper (make that fingertip to computer key) on a regular basis, your chances for publication are good. If you can take constructive criticism and apply it to your piece, making the changes we all need to make, your chances become very good. And, if you persevere because you love writing, because you must write, I’d say it’s only a matter of time before your first sale.
Do enjoy that pre-pub time – the planning, the dreaming. The anticipation is delicious. 

Lisa: Any writer’s resources you could recommend?

Cathy: Absolutely! Some favorites I recommend: Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King, Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, and a special fave for new writers - Your Novel Proposal: From Creation to Contract by Camenson & Cook. (The Writer magazine is tops.)

In addition, I am an enthusiastic attendee of writer conferences and would encourage folks to participate in every available conference, seminar, or workshop that applies to the craft. Join a writer’s group in your area and be accountable to someone. Set goals and meet them. Have your work critiqued and do the same for others. You’ll learn a great deal about good writing (and mistakes to avoid) by doing so.

Lisa: What is the process you use when writing a mystery/suspense?

Cathy: I start with a character and a hint of mystery. When I learn a bit more about my protagonist, I understand what he or she wants and that begins to push the plot forward. Then, I create a promo pitch statement – my elevator pitch. I try to build on that, add elements that round out the mystery. I often struggle to put the plot together – it’s my big weakness in the process. But once it’s figured out, I move to the synopsis.

As I write that ever-important story summary, I find places to insert clues or red herrings and work out details. The synopsis is my most useful tool. Though the story may change a bit, I refer to the synopsis again and again throughout the writing process. Next, I make up a rough chapter outline, considering word count and plot points. Then…it’s time to tell the tale.

Lisa: What is your system to keep the story/clues organized?

Cathy: A detailed synopsis helps me remember what is introduced and when. But often, story events just happen and I have to adjust my direction a bit. I also might put colorful sticky notes next to different chapter summaries in my outline. That way, I can see at a glance which clues are planted or exposed…where and when.

Lisa: Tell us a bit about the research you had to do for this story?

Cathy: For my first cozy mystery, A Vase of Mistaken Identity, I researched the dates and uses of various antiques to be sure I didn’t misrepresent them inside the book’s covers. And though my little town of Larkindale was mythical, I studied the California Gold Rush years when the town was born. I wanted to write up an authentic history for Larkindale that would ring true for history buffs when a character referred to ancestors who once lived there or events that once happened. The detective work served to make my town even more real - to me, at least.

I also featured a K9 Patrol Officer, a German Shepherd called Justice. Some time was spent researching the interesting subject of police dogs, K9 handlers, etc. In addition, I interviewed a local Police Officer, Michael Peery, whose first K9 partner was actually named Justice. Officer Peery gave me the information I needed to make those scenes ring true. I expect Justice will return in Thea’s next adventure.

Lisa: I've enjoyed so much chatting with you, Cathy and look foward to seeing many more books out by you soon.

Cathy: Thanks you so much for the opportunity to talk a little about my book and writer journey. It’s a privilege to be included with so many great suspense and mystery writers.

Don't forget to check out our contest page for a chance to win a copy of Cathy's book!

Cathy's Website

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Passion and Paring Knives, Part 2

Paring your story is more than cutting. It’s refining. Sometimes it’s adding, too. Last post, I mentioned passion about your story. Let’s redirect that passion from protecting your story. Instead, become passionate about honing your story and making it stand out. How? Get that knife in hand and start asking:

* What are your characters like? Do they have any distinguishing characteristics that make them stand out? Or, for example, is your heroine like any other woman in peril? What makes her different? Do we immediately get into her head—and her heart—from the very beginning? The same with your hero. Do you make us want to root for him? Dig deep!

* Does your story start too late? What I mean is, do we have pages of pages of introduction without any problems?

* What about setting? Do you repeat situations like phone calls, restaurant conversations, car rides? These are scenes in limbo and they can slow your pace. I have a bad habit of having my characters go out to eat. Going out to eat is fun. They can discuss things related to the case, or overhear information, which isn’t a bad thing. But there’s not much action. Give us some interesting settings for downtime. This drifts into the next question.

* What about pacing? Do you give your characters too much on-the-go time, leaving little time for their inner journey? If they’re always being shot at, or running through the woods, they’re not going to have time for reflection before the next crisis. And, times like those aren’t really for inner character development.

These are a few items to get you ready to make the first incision. These aren’t nitpicky techniques, but big-picture aspects. I’ve been working on those lately. I believe that the more I dig deep and throw my passion into story surgery, it won’t be as painful in the long run.

One last note: It amazes me how many writers don’t read the type of books they’re trying to write. For example, if you’re targeting Love Inspired Suspense, you need to read their books. Keep up with what’s coming out. You’ll see examples of the pacing, chapter length, characterization, and setting that editors have selected. True, there’s an editing process from the time a writer submits a book until its release, but if you are a commercial writer, your goal is to be passionate enough about crafting your book to get it into print.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Passion and Paring Knives, part 1

For great writing, you’ve got to have both passion and paring knives. Last weekend I attended the newly-formed Centex chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers, and fellow author Eileen Key was our fabulous speaker. Her topic? Howdy, editor!

She mentioned being passionate about your story. You must love it. If you don’t love it, you need to reevaluate why, especially before meeting an editor at a conference. The book is your darling, your baby. You’ve devoted countless hours in research, plotting, characters, twists and turns, and you’re hoping, praying, wishing, believing that an editor will love it, too. But being passionate about your story only helps to a certain point.

For example, you might decide to enter your story in a contest, and you might discover that not everyone sees your creation as a darling. Like any good parent, you could be offended. Incredulous that the judge didn’t appreciate your work. You talk to your friends, who’ve sung the praises of said darling story. So then you perform a modicum of polishing before submitting it to an editor, and here comes the inevitable “thanks, but no thanks.”

But wait…steel yourself, get out the paring knife, and pull up the chopping block. Writing is a business, and comments about your darling aren’t meant to be a slight. Think of your book as a commercial product now instead your blood and tears poured onto paper. Sounds sterile and cold, but walk into any bookstore and you’ll see rows upon rows of product. I guarantee you for each book, there’s hundreds if not thousands of proposals that didn’t make it. The harsh reality is that publishers want to make money, and I believe they really do want the best product possible.

So what surgery can you perform on your story to make it stand out, in a good way?
To be continued…

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Interview with Janice Thompson

Last fall, I read Janice Thompson’s THE WEDDING CAPER and laughed through Annie Peterson’s wedding adventures. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series, GONE WITH THE GROOM. Recently, I chatted with Janice about her latest release and here’s what she had to say.

LISA: What was your initial reaction in finding out you sold your first book? In other words, tell us about. . .THE CALL

JANICE: My first book (Duty to Die) was really the book of my heart. My passion for the subject matter drove me to write. So, when the call came from the editor at Barbour Fiction (formerly Promise Press line), I couldn’t believe it. I still remember the phone in my hand—hearing the words—not quite believing they could be true. Someone wanted to pay me. . .for my book? Wow! Years of prayer had gone into that moment, and it’s one I’ll never forget. I’ve sold many books since, but every contract is a reminder that God is in the business of answering prayers and meeting needs.

LISA: Tell us some of the background behind the idea for this series and in particular about GONE WITH THE GROOM.

JANICE: The past few years have been filled with weddings. My two oldest daughters got married in 2004 within five months of each other. My third-oldest daughter got married this past March, and my youngest is head-over-heels in love with the man she’s sure she’s going to marry. In-between all of the ceremonies, I’ve helped friends with their weddings, baking cakes, decorating, etc. In other words, I’ve been in wedding-planning mode for three years now, and the fun goes on! During the planning of my oldest daughter’s wedding, I was struck with an idea for a wedding-themed mystery and the first book of this series (THE WEDDING CAPER) was born.

GONE WITH THE GROOM is the sequel to that book. In this story, mother of the bride, Annie Peterson, takes on the role of super-sleuth when her daughter’s groom-to-be turns up missing two weeks before the big day. I can honestly say none of my sons-in-law went missing (thank goodness), but I had a lot of fun imagining what I’d do if such a thing happened. The story is filled with ups and downs, ins and outs, and plenty of intrigue!

LISA: Wow, you’ve really been busy! I find in my own writing that I often grow alongside my characters, especially spiritually. Is there a character in this story who you relate to and who made an input on your life?

JANICE: The primary character (Annie Peterson) is a lot like me. Or maybe I’m a lot like her. We’re both in our late 40’s, and both know what it’s like to marry off daughters one on top of the other. We’re both in love with our pets (my miniature dachshunds Sasha and Copper play a major role in the stories) and we’re both “take-charge” kind of people. In some ways, Annie is wackier than I am. In some ways, I envy her. She’s far better at watching what she eats and going to the gym. (Fitting into that mother-of-the-bride dress can be tricky.) It’s been fun to write this story in first-person, because I can really get into Annie’s head. I find myself living vicariously through her.

LISA: What is the number one thing you’ve learned from your writing journey?

JANICE: I think I’ve learned that God is both the inspiration AND the door-opener. He will show me what I need to write and where the story will “land” (which editor/house, etc.) I don’t want to get out ahead of Him, though (as I mentioned above) I’m a take charge kind of girl. Patience isn’t a strong-suit, and waiting on news from editors/agents can be difficult, but God is in control. And I’ve also learned that the “timing” of things is important, even when it’s out of my control. For example, when my book HURRICANE (about the Galveston hurricane of 1900) was set to be released in October of 2004, I was horrified. I would have preferred to see it released in June, at the beginning of the hurricane season, not October, at the end. How was I to know that three catastrophic hurricanes would hit in September of 2004, in the weeks prior to the book’s release? On the heels of those storms, my book was released (and received a lot of coverage in the news as a result). Amazing, eh?

LISA: Any future plans for your writing you’d like to share? Any specific dreams you’d like to accomplish in the area of writing?

JANICE: Oh my goodness! Where do I start? There will be three more books in Annie Peterson’s journey. They will release with Barbour’s new mystery bookclub line over the next three years. My agent is also marketing a series of Texas historicals, as well as a (what fun!) romantic comedy series called Club Wed. Many/most of my stories have weddings in them, so readers can look for that to be a consistent theme. My new web design reflects that, as well. And while I’m talking about future projects, I’ll go ahead and share that my daughter (Randi Morrow) and I co-authored two non-fiction books for Barbour. HAPPILY EVER AFTER (a devotional for brides-to-be) and GREAT EXPECTATIONS (a devotional for moms-to-be) will release in 2008.

LISA: Sounds like two wonderful books, Janice. Because I know there are many aspiring writers out there, can you share any tidbits of wisdom on getting published?

JANICE: As I mentioned above, hitting the right house at the right time is critical. And patience is key. Don’t give up. It’s better to wait for the right house/right deal than to rush things through in the wrong place.

LISA: Any writer’s resources you could recommend?

JANICE: All (inspirational/Christian) writers need a copy of Sally Stuart’s “Christian Writers Market Guide.” And I highly recommend Sol Stein’s book (On Writing) as well. I also learned a lot from Penny Stokes book on fiction-writing.

LISA: What is the process you use when writing a mystery/suspense?

JANICE: I do everything in my head first, then commit it to computer. I start out with a basic premise, then come up with a list of suspects, trying to lay a good foundation for WHY/WHAT would make them suspect to the reader. It’s tricky! Writing a good mystery is tough work, and many times I want to pull my hair out, but it’s worth it in the end, particularly when I get a letter from a reader saying, “You got me! You really got me!”

LISA: What is your system to keep the story/clues organized?

JANICE: I use a chapter-by-chapter synopsis so that I don’t get lost. I don’t always stick to it, but it provides a good foundation. I also use a 12-step plotter, which readers can find on my website at www.janiceathompson.com.

LISA: Thanks so much for stopping by our Keep Me In Suspense Site, Janice! You can pick up a copy of GONE WITH THE GROOM at your local bookstore. Also, be sure and stop by our contest page for a chance to win a free copy.

Check out Janice's website!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Courtroom Decorum--Part 2

Here’s the rest of Cara Putnam’s article, Courtroom Decorum. If you haven't already, check out Cara’s blog.

6) “You gotta lose ‘em some of the time. When you do, lose ‘em right. New York Yankees and Mets manager Casey Stengel

Much as every attorney wants to win, there will be cases they lose. Even the best lose occasionally. So when we lose, we need to lose well. There are mechanisms in place (like motions to reconsider, motions to correct errors, and appeals) to let a judge know when we think he made a bad decision. Telling him right there in the courtroom, isn’t it. And it usually won’t score points with the judge.

7) “Never interrupt me when I’m trying to interrupt you.” Sir Winston Churchill

Don’t do it. Period.

Okay, I’ll expand. Don’t ever interrupt a judge when he’s talking unless you want to apologize and grovel. Judges really don’t like to be interrupted. Sometimes we get so excited about our argument or a mistake opposing counsel has made that we can’t stop ourselves. But we really need to. Even when it’s exceptionally hard to do.

8) “Half a truth is often a great lie.” Benjamin Franklin

You know that promise that witnesses have to make: I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God? Well, it applies to attorneys, too. We can’t color the truth. We have an ethical obligation to let the judge know about cases that hurt us as well as those that help us. And we can’t

9) “There is absolutely no substitute for a genuine lack of preparation.” Anonymous

Nothing is worse than showing up to court knowing you haven’t prepared well. Sometimes there’s not much an attorney can do about that. The time they had blocked for preparation gets eaten by a more pressing emergency. Some attorneys have a mind sharp enough and a photographic memory that allows them to get away with minimum preparation. The rest of us have to prepare the old fashioned way.

When I have a hearing coming, I usually review the pleadings, the case chronology, important cases and notes. Then I make an outline to help refresh my memory if I freeze. But every attorney will have a different approach. They just have to have some system (or lack thereof) to prepare.

10) “Presidential candidates don’t chew gum.” Presidential adviser Theodore C. Sorensen

It’s kind of hard to speak eloquently when chomping on gum. Attorneys are also still held to a professional standard of dress. That means suits most of the time for men. Occasionally, a suit coat and nice pants. Women have a bit more leeway. We can wear dresses, suits, slacks and sweater or blazer. But the image we portray in the courtroom needs to be professional and competent.

Disclaimer: This post is not to be used as legal advice. This is only to assist writers in writing scenes in their novels regarding the law.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Courtroom Decorum--Part 1

This week, we have another contribution from Cara Putman to help suspense and mystery writers who want to include courtroom scenes in their stories. This is Part 1. Part 2 will come out later this week, so stay tuned. . .

Courtroom Decorum (Part 1)

I recently saw a great article in the May 2007 issue of the American Bar Association’s Litigation Section’s Tips from the Trenches. The article, Ten Proven Ways to Irritate a Judge by Judge Michael B. Hyman, was right on.

To aid you in writing your courtroom scenes, I’m using his ten points as a launching pad for courtroom decorum:

1) “If you're not ready to come here and go by my rules, you're not going to come in.” Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen

In my experience, each judge has slightly different rules about how his or her courtroom will run. Accordingly, you have some leeway to write these scenes. However, the courtroom is that judge’s domain, so if an attorney doesn’t follow the rules, then he’s going to lose points with that judge. Plain and simple.

Also, there are federal and state trial rules which dictate what has to be done at each stage of a case. Then there are the rules of evidence and civil or criminal procedure that have to be followed, too. So make sure you check with an attorney to get all those details right. Within those rules, you have a lot of flexibility on how to write a scene.

2) “I have noticed that the people who are late are often so much jollier than the people who have to wait for them.” English author E. V. Lucas

You can read the judge’s comments, but let me tell you common sense prevails. Most judges are overworked right now, making their time exceedingly precious. Therefore, a late attorney, who messes up the balance of the day’s schedule, is not going to win friends with the court. He’ll also annoy opposing counsel who is forced to wait on him. I’ve seen more than one judge that I respect take other attorneys to task for disrespecting the court’s time.

3) “Etiquette means behaving yourself a little better than is absolutely necessary.” Humorist Will Cuppy

The judge is surrounded by staff who can make your job easier if you respect them. Or make your life miserable if you treat them with less than the courtesy they deserve. It also means treating the opposing counsel and party with the common decency that every human being deserves. Even when you have to grit your teeth to do it. I’ve found I can be a much better advocate for my clients when I am able to work with someone who will treat me with the same respect that I extend to them. As they say, it isn’t personal…it really is business.

4) “Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption.” Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer

You know how every time you go to the theater or really anywhere anymore, there will be signs or announcements telling you to turn off your cell phone. Don’t forget to do that in court, too. Enough said.

5) “Having a sharp tongue can cut your own throat.” Anonymous

Oh, the judges I know would underline and bold this one. Be civil. Civility seems to be dying in parts of the legal profession. In fact, there are commissions, panels, etc., looking for ways to bring back the good ole days. The key: live by the Golden Rule. Even in the courtroom.

Disclaimer: This post is not to be used as legal advice. This is only to assist writers in writing scenes in their novels regarding the law.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Will your characters keep an editor reading?

My earlier post this week talked about the importance of your story standing out from the crowd. Good simply isn’t good enough. The competition is too stiff. You’ve got to grab an editor’s attention with the first sentence and keep them turning pages. Besides finding your voice and letting your passion shine through your story, your characters are another great place to start.

How is your hero different from every other hero sitting on the bookshelf? Does he/she have specific goals? (They must) How is he/she trying to reach those goals? Is your dialogue real or stilted? Are their motivations believable? Have they grown by the end of the book? Do they have any interesting quirks or hobbies that the reader can identify with?

Okay, I admit I’m not big on character charts. I plan out my plotline carefully, but prefer to learn about my heroes and heroines as I write. The more I get into the story, the more I find out about their preferences, dreams, past hurts, likes, and dislikes. We all have our different styles of writing and that is fine, but it all comes down to the fact that in order to make our characters come alive we have to know them well. The best place to start is the basics.

Where do they work? How old are they? What do they look like? Remember the goal here is to make your characters well-rounded. To make them pop of the page and draw that editor into the story.

It might seem obvious, but in some of my earlier writings I have to chuckle a bit because I couldn’t tell you what my hero did for living. If it never came up in the book, then what was the use of worrying about it? Obviously, that isn’t true. The more I know about my characters, whether I use the information in my story or not, the more the reader will be able to identify with them.

Think about your best friend or your next door neighbor. In the real world, people are tempted, face difficult decision, react differently to these decisions, have obvious strengths and weaknesses, are motivated by different factors, have a past. . .the list could go on and on.

If you like charts, then you can easily find free character charts on line by using Google. An even deeper resource is Brandiyln Collin’s book, Getting into Character. She draws on the method acting theory that theater professional use explains seven characterization techniques and adapts them for the novelist.

Since we are talking about ways to catch an editors eye, here are two more timely resources I’d like to encourage you to look into.

1. Terry Whalin is hosting a free live teleseminar on June 5th where he will be talking about the creation of book proposals and the publishing process. He’s also giving us a chance to ask our own questions. You can register here.

2. If you haven't heard of the snowflake method, it's a great way to delve way beyond the surface of your story. For information on how to get an example of Randy Ingermanson’s snow flake method from Gone With the Wind check out his site. Hundreds have used his method to help organize and analyze their manuscripts.

Happy writing!