Photo Challenge: Shine

(Since my laptop died two weeks ago, I’m having to pull old photos off my Facebook page until I can get the files transferred . . .)

At any rate, last winter we had a little ice storm here in Kansas. Not too bad, but it made for some beautiful shots that next morning.




Notes from a First Page Panel

Let’s face it:  first pages are hard work. Half the time you start your first page without knowing where your novel’s going; many times, those original first pages end up getting heavily edited, if not actually deleted. Been there, done that! And what might seem fine to us just isn’t fine to agents and editors.

The Rose State Writers Conference was in September. One of my favorite parts of this conference is what’s known as the ‘First Page Panel.’ Attendees bring the firs page of their manuscript and drop it into a box when they arrive that morning; at noon, the box is brought into the main auditorium, we all gather with box lunches, and the panel – composed of the guest agents, writers, and teachers – tell us what they like and don’t like. Each page is read aloud; anyone on the panel has the right to stop the reader at any time.

At first, the panel’s nice. After they get through about 10 pages, they start to get a bit tougher.🙂 Here’s some notes from this year’s panel:

First – not too much backstory or dialogue. A lot of the pages broke this cardinal rule. In fact, one agent went so far as to say this:  No backstory. No exposition. Start with the character and their problem. You can fill in everything else later. Otherwise, it’s lazy writing. 

Don’t start with dialogue. Especially when there’s no speaker delineated, or grounding for the reader. There’s no context; it’s just wasted words. And contrary to popular belief, it generally doesn’t incite curiosity in the reader, unless it’s the right dialogue. Most isn’t.

While I’m on the subject of dialogue . . . Dialogue cannot be used to get information across. “As you know, Bob . . .” Just don’t. Agents will throw your manuscript across the room and curse you forever. Well. Maybe just for a bit.🙂

And before we leave the subject of dialogue . . . Give us an idea of your MC in your dialogue. Age? Speaking voice? Dialect? (Not too much of that, though.) Remember, show us what they’re like. That means the voice, too. What words they use. How they structure sentences. What they talk about.

Make sure you set the time and place, and let the reader orient themselves. Don’t set them adrift! This is one of the reasons why starting with dialogue is bad – because there’s no context. Think about your favorite movies. Do they start with dialogue? Or do we start with a few opening scenes that let us know when/where we are?

But:  Choose your details carefully. Watch the pacing. Too many details will slow it down and the reader will walk away. This is NOT an info-dump. This is not backstory. Setting is never separate from the story. Choose your details well. Give just 1-3 telling, specific details; the reader will do the rest. More, and the reader will start to skim, or even get resentful. If you describe a house as a “pink Victorian,” for example, the reader knows what that should look like, and they’ll fill in the rest with their own imagination. And this gives them buy-in! The house they imagine won’t be like yours, and it won’t be like anyone else’s, either. It’ll be theirs.

Create conflict from the get-go – or at least, create interest intrigue for your readers. Hook them with a question. As I’ve said before in other blog posts, that’s the job of the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page – to lure the reader in by asking questions they must know the answers to. 

The first page should ask questions. Questions should be asked throughout the book. Picture these as stepping-stones, leading the reader from one to the other, until they are done. But don’t lay down your questions in a way that confuses the reader! Lay them down in order. Answer one, raise two more. Sure, we’ve got this solved – now what conflict arises because of that?  Or, as author Katherine Center put it so eloquently,

“The readers are in your roller coaster. Lock them in and take off!”

BUT . . . There’s a subtle line between making people curious and overwhelming them. Once they’re confused, they’re lost. Don’t pull them out of the story! And don’t let them put the book down.To hook readers, give them one little thing that’s out of place. Set up questions for them. One example from the conference was this gem:  “When I got home the door was locked – and I never lock the door.” Doesn’t that put a question in your mind? Maybe two or three, even?

Emotions:  make the reader feel them. Show, don’t tell. Every single word needs to be there because it’s important to the story. Make sure the reader knows what they have to know. Give the basics – that’s it. Description kills the urgency. The pace of the story should reflect the characters’ emotions.

And on that note, watch your writing. The first page may be all you get to entice agents, editors, and readers. Do. Not. Use. Adjective and Adverbs. Too many adjectives make agents and readers ‘too aware of the writing.’ They notice and stumble over it. Make the words disappear. Never pull them out of the story. And don’t make them think about the language. Or again, as Katherine Center said, “Thinking is hard. Stories should be easy!”

One tidbit I learned is that agents have what they call the ‘modifier zone’ – the point at which agents stop reading because the author is putting in too many modifiers (dapper, plush, etc.). Just tell us what’s what. Tell us what we have to know to move forward. Picture the first page as the opening scene of a movie. Do we need to know everything? No. Should we have some hint, some clue, as to the central conflict and characters? Yes.

Prologues:  it’s hard to gauge a novel on the prologue, especially if it’s about 5 pages long and the agent or editor has asked for the first five pages. It’s often written differently than the rest of the novel, and usually it’s info-dumping. Get to the story.

More importantly, ask yourself:  why am I starting the book here? What is the purpose of this scene? If the answer has anything to do with backstory, you’re not staring in the right place. Backstory = prologue, in most cases. Get rid of it.

We weren’t able to get through very many in an hour and twenty minutes – of the 50+ submissions, I think we read about 15 aloud. But those 15 bold guinea pigs helped their fellow attendees, and I hope they may have helped you.🙂 I do, however, want to leave you with just one more tidbit from Katherine Center:

“Anyone who writes has to know what they LOVE to read.” And then they should be writing that. Not something else. That. “Write the story you wish was out there in the world. If it’s romance – great! Whatever it is that lights the reading fire in you is what you should be writing.”


Katherine Center’s website:



Photo Challenge: Local

This beautiful house is home to College Hill Coffee – one of my favorite places in the world. Everyone in town knows it, and those just passing through usually makes a stop because they’ve heard about it. And no wonder! Its a beautiful c. 1910 bungalow with the original hardwood floors and woodwork. The current owner took great pains to save and restore the house – and now it’s a cozy haven, perfect for curling up in front of a fire and reading, or for finding a quiet corner in which to write. It’s become a hub of culture and life in Winfield; it hosts a new artist every month, it’s often the departure point for the annual International Photo Walk . . . I firmly believe that if you sit there long enough, everyone you know WILL come in.🙂


Outlander: Monsters, Villains, and Redemption

(A note:  I drafted this some time ago, when the second season of Outlander was wrapping up on Starz. But as the new season has started filming  … I thought I’d go ahead and publish it, as it contains what I think are some Rather Important Points.)


Tobias Menzies – 

A few weeks ago, I made an impassioned plea to the writers of the series Outlander to get to know the characters a bit better before they started to write about them willy-nilly. But this week’s episode left me particularly disappointed and dismayed.

Outlander, to recap, is the first book in a series by Diana Gabaldon. The series focuses on the story of Claire Beauchamp, thrown back in time from 1945 to 1743 Scotland. There, she’s forced to wed young Jamie Fraser for protection, and quite against her intentions, falls in love with him. She chooses to remain in 1743, forsaking her 20th century husband Frank Randall, and she and Jamie start a quest to stop the Battle of Culloden Field, the last gasp of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 – and the event that destroys the Highlands and the clans.

As I’ve said before – YES. I know that adaptations have to be slightly different from the books for various reasons, including time constraints, money, etc. But the characters? They have to remain the same. HAVE TO. Otherwise, why are you bothering to even try to create a television series from the book? Millions of people love these characters, and are expecting the writers to Get It Right.

Nowhere is that more important than in the main antagonists, though. Take away their characters, and what do you have? No one for the protagonists to go up against, to react to.

Such was the case this week with Captain Jonathan Wolverton Randall, of His Majesty’s Eighth Dragoons.

Masterfully played by Tobias Menzies, Randall is the one character – as Diana Gabaldon has often said – that people simply cannot quite grasp. They constantly ask how did this awful, evil person come out of YOU?! How could you write him like this? What was your inspiration? And as she’s also often said – a writer has all their characters inside them already. Randall is as much a part of her as Claire and Jamie are. What makes him so awful, you ask? Well . . . for starters, he’s a sadist. The very first time he meets with Claire, he attempts to rape her; the second time, fed up with Claire’s inability to answer his questions, he hits her hard in the stomach (“I trust you are not with child, Madam,” he said in a conversational tone, “because if you are, you won’t be for long.”). The third time, he tries to rape her in front of her new husband. The fourth time . . . well.

And yet. Gabaldon takes pains to paint him as a full, nuanced man. Take for instance this scene from Outlander (which also highlights Claire’s sarcasm, notably absent in the TV series, too):

“Don’t tell me,” I said finally. “Let me guess. It’s a new form of persuasion you’ve invented – torture by bladder. You ply me with drinkables until I promise to tell you anything in exchange for five minutes with a chamber pot.”

He was so taken by surprise that he actually laughed. . . . Having let the facade crack, he didn’t stifle the laugh, but let it go. Finished, he stared at me again, a half-smile lingering on his mouth.

“Whatever else you may be, Madam, at least you’re a diversion.” He yanked a bellpull hanging by the door, and when the orderly reappeared, instructed him to convey me to the necessary facilities.

As readers, we need this three-dimensionality. We need to see Randall as more than a caricature, more than the ‘mwa-ha-ha’ villain. Sure, he’s a sadist, but he’s a sadist with a sense of humor.

However, to understand how truly depraved he is, you have to know that in the end, he forces Jamie, already in prison, to trade his body for Claire’s – and Jamie has to prove the point by allowing Randall to nail his hand to a table. By the end of the first book, you know one thing about Randall:  he is evil, pure and simple. Even a demon can have a sense of humor.

Had Gabaldon left it there, that would be one thing. But she didn’t. No. Because she’s a better writer than that. In the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, we learn that Jack Randall has a younger brother, Alex, who is quite ill. When Alex loses his job, Randall steps in, paying for his room, his medicine, and in the end, tracking down Claire in Edinburgh to request her help. No, it’s not entirely without benefit to him:  part of their unholy deal is that he is able to relive Jamie’s rape at leisure with the one person on earth who knows him the way he does. “We are linked, you and I, through the body of one man – through him.” But Randall is willing to trade British Army secrets – turn traitor – in exchange for Claire’s medical skills. Because there is one thing in life he loves – his brother. So much that he even marries Alex’s pregnant sweetheart, at Alex’s request.

In the book, you understand that whatever else Randall is – and he’s quite a lot of Really Bad Things – he has one redemption:  his love for Alex. It is these final scenes, more than anything else, that ’round out’ Jack Randall, making him fully human. In real life, there are true monsters – but in fiction, unless you’re writing some Die Hard fanfic, even your antagonists have to have a redemption. Gabaldon made the difficult and correct decision to allow Randall this, so that we might see both sides to him.

But in the show . . . OMG.

I’ve been disappointed in a lot of episodes, but this one truly disgusted me on several levels, not the least of which was the utter lack of redemption Jack Randall was given. Throughout the show he’s been portrayed as nothing other than a sadistic, evil rapist. And in this episode, nothing changed. Alex made the request; Randall denied him and stormed out. We got one small glimpse – early in the episode, Randall found Claire and asked her to tend Alex, and she made the bargain:  she’ll care for Alex in exchange for intelligence on the British Army. Rightfully so, Randall was infuriated. So was I. This is a man willing to turn traitor if it will help his brother, and yet, the show’s writers can’t even give him that?

But wait, it gets worse! He refused to marry Alex’s sweetheart, Mary; when Claire tracked him down and demanded he reconsider, he basically said, “You know what I am and what I do. You’d turn a sweet, innocent girl like that over to me?” He is given no redemption. Ever. Not even in those final moments when Alex dies . . . rather than weep at his bedside, he jumps on the bed and punches Alex’s corpse. Not once, but several times. And makes no apology for it. (If it makes you feel better, he won’t be alive much longer anyway. At least, if the writers don’t screw that up, too. However, I have little hope of that at this moment.)

Let me be clear:  Diana Gabaldon doesn’t go too far with trying to redeem Randall. She remains true to his sadistic nature throughout. But.

Jack Randall is a complicated character, as all great antagonists should be.

At least, in the books, he is.

Photo Challenge: Quest

A couple of years ago, a member of our local camera club posted a few photos of this awesome old building he’d found while out driving back roads. We all begged him to give us directions – and we were all shattered when he said “I don’t know! I was just going down random roads . . .”

Which turned this mystery into a quest for several of us. And in rural Kansas, quests can be really cool and really dangerous at the same time. You just never know where you’ll end up, or when you’ll end up with a shotgun in your face.

Still . . . I found the building.


Today it’s an empty shell of a former church – but still beautiful. It reminds me of an old English church in the countryside – the Virginia creeper, the stonework.

window 10

The quest to find a nameless old building has turned into a love affair that still has several of us traveling to the site a few times a year to photograph it and just keep an eye on things.🙂


Photo Challenge: Edge

I forgot about this last week!

I took this shot a year ago on a photo walk around my home town. It’s one of only two decent bird photos I’ve ever taken.🙂 He’s sitting on the edge of an overhang that’s on the front of one of our historic buildings – an Art Deco wonder that’s been empty for ages.


Inspired by true events . . . authors, agents, and publishing.

Last Saturday, I trekked 60 miles – about an hour and a half – to hear a ‘publishing panel’ at the Wichita Public Library.

I didn’t really know what to expect, and since I was about 15 minutes late (darn my addiction to white chocolate-cinnamon chip scones!) I honestly can’t tell you who the panelists were – I know one of them was former Kansas Poet Laureate Denise Low-Weso, who is co-publisher of Mammoth Publications ( (No, the information’s not available on the library’s website, either, sorry!) By the time I got there, they were taking questions from the audience.

Most of the audience seemed to be beginning writers – there were some that were already published, either by small presses or self-published. I have to say that I think the panelists would have been best if left alone to answer the questions. However, there was a facilitator – a librarian – who simply wouldn’t let that happen. By the time it was over (half an hour early), my inner teacher had kicked in and I wanted to stand up and say LISTEN PEOPLE, IF YOU REALLY WANT TO KNOW THE ANSWERS TO YOUR QUESTIONS, LET’S GO OUTSIDE AND I’LL GIVE IT MY BEST SHOT! It was pretty clear that most people had come to get specific answers to specific questions – but they didn’t get them. And I felt so bad for them.

But I did want to address one question that was handled so poorly, the advice given was useless. Here it is:

I’m already self-published, but I haven’t had much success. How would I break into mainstream publishing? The facilitator wouldn’t let the panelists answer this question. She answered it herself and her answer was total crap. Her suggestion was to get a blog and get your books listed on Goodreads.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Here’s the real answer:  GET AN AGENT. It really is the only way to break into mainstream publishing, even with small houses. Very few reputable publishing houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts. They just get too many! Last year, a fairly well-known sci-fi publisher accepted open submissions (no agents) for 30 days. They had more than 5,000 submissions. They did not read them all. Agents, for better or worse, have become the gatekeepers of the publishing world.

Agents aren’t just a gateway, though. They may be the first people to really critique your book and give you honest, unflinching, realistic views about it. I love my beta readers in large part because I know they will tell me that crap is crap. But so many people don’t have those kinds of betas – they have the kind that gushes over everything and proclaims it perfect. (Much the same way I imagine Trump’s handlers must do every time he opens his mouth and tries to utter a coherent sentence and fails spectacularly.) Agents don’t have time to do that, though. This is their business. They’ve got to sell books to publishers in order to keep their cars and houses. That’s why they’re so choosy about the projects they take on. On average, agents will only take on a teeny, tiny fraction of authors who actually query them. They don’t have time to do more.

Your first taste of how critical agents can be will come with the query letter. (For more on this, see my blog post ) But I will say this:  the days of a form query letter addressed to ‘sir or madam’ are OVER. If your query letter isn’t 100% right, kiss that agent goodbye. Agents have requirements on their websites. Follow those requirements. Follow them to the letter.

There’s several responses you might get to your query letter. A lot of agents don’t even respond to query letters if the answer is ‘no,’ and I think that’s just wrong. Some will send a form letter back – ‘thanks but this isn’t for us.’ If the manuscript is good, but not their thing or not quite ready, they might send a personalized note – ‘Hey,  I really liked x, y, and z about this, but I’m not the best fit for the project,’ or ‘Like the concept, but the main character needs work.’ If they like the manuscript and they think it’s close to being ready they might say ‘look, I’m excited about this project, but there’s changes that need to be made to it. I’ve got them listed on the next page. If you’re willing to do that, then resubmit when you’re done and we’ll talk.’

If you get that last one, the agent’s interested. Really interested. If they take the time to not only read your manuscript, but also to make detailed notes about what they’d like to see changed, they’re interested.

Of course, what you really want is an email that says “OMG, I love this – can I call you at x time on x day to talk about representation???? Please????”🙂 Been there, done that, best feeling in the world!!!! But even then, you might find that the agent isn’t the best fit for you and your work – and it’s up to you to make that decision. They might be asking for changes you’re not willing or able to make. That’s where you have to take a step back and say okay, do I want to be published – or do I want to be a writer? No, they’re not the same thing.

But to get back to the original question –

Agents are the ones who know what editors want. A lot of them started out in publishing, as either editors or junior editors. They know how to make a pile of pages into a book. They know which editors are actively seeking new projects – and what they want. And agents are the only good way to break into traditional publishing.

The sad fact is this:  yes, there are a handful of self-published authors out there who had the traditional publishing world come knocking at the door. A handful. That’s it. Hugh Howey had this kind of success with Wool (it started as a short story that evolved into an online novel; but by the time Simon & Schuster came along, it was already making more than $100,000/month on Amazon). And of course . . . E.L. James and Fifty Shades of Grey. But seriously? That’s like IT. So the odds of your novel a.) making it big on Amazon and b.) attracting an unsolicited bidding war between the Big Five are c.) astronomical.

I did a blog post a while back that included a bit about self-publishing – – and the fact is this:  if you’re self-published and your novel isn’t doing well, it’s time to pull it and think about why that is. That’s what a good agent can help you with. (Also, a good freelance editor, who will – for a fee – read your manuscript and make suggestions. If you’re not good at editing, spelling, grammar, etc. I highly recommend you do this.)

One last sad fact to leave you with today:  most writers won’t break into mainstream publishing, depending on what your definition of ‘mainstream publishing’ is. If you’re only shooting for the Big Five, it’s a long uphill slog. If you’re okay with a smaller press, you’re in luck – they’re much more willing to take on new authors and more willing to work with you to make that novel successful. Again, these are things your agent will discuss with you.

But if you want to be published ‘mainstream,’ finding an agent is the only way to do it.

Some helpful links: – this is the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, which had some great insights into what agents are seeking, as well as a list of new agents seeking authors. No, there’s no articles here, but you can run out to your local bookstore and grab it.🙂 – from Writer’s Digest. – from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, on how to find an agent.