Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A Lesson in Terror

by Kate Robbins

In the spirit of Halloween, my favourite time of the year, I’d like to share my love of an intense emotion different from what you’ll normally read in a romance novel—terror.

I’ve always had a mad fascination for the macabre. Not sure why that is, but I’m sure some therapist somewhere would have a field day with my love of horror. Tomorrow is Halloween and I usually spend the month leading up to it hanging ghosts, baking spooky treats, and watching horror movies.

This year was a little different. I released my debut novel on October 10th and have been flat out ever since. My decorations are mostly still in their boxes, except for the few the man beasts have hung for me. So today, I’d like to take a few minutes to share my top five horror movies of all time.

Sit back, grab your fave cuddly blankie to duck your head under, and let’s do this. Are you ready?

Number 5

Sleepy Hollow. From the first time I saw the Disney version, I fell in love with this tale of a headless horseman and his quest to locate his own head by severing those he haunts. In more recent years, Tim Burton brought a stellar cast into his eerie version of the tale. If you like horror, and you’ve never read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, you should. It’s fabulous! Johnny Depp is such a good Ichabod Crane and the film has a perfect balance of humour and spook. Christopher Walkin is amazing as the Hessian. I might have to dig this out tonight.

Number 4

The Others. In this story, we learn of a war widow raising two children who are extremely sensitive to daylight. You feel her stress level at every step and she ensures light never touches her children in this old fashioned ghost story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Nicole Kidman has never been better and I will admit, I screamed in the theatre for this one. It’s brilliantly written and directed.

Number 3

The Ring. From the jerky movements of the creepy girl to the best piece of film editing I have ever seen (the infamous video), The Ring stayed with me for days. I had to watch it about four times before I could go from beginning to end without putting my hands up to my eyes at least five times. And there’s something extra special about the sound in this movie, like knives scraping across ice. The whole thing gets under your skin. Awesome!

Number 2

The Shining. I’m sure Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is on everyone’s list. And so it should be. This movie scared the living crap out of me. I remember it coming on the regular Saturday night movie show back in the early 80s and I was probably no more than 11 at the time. Everything about this movie is stellar, but Jack Nicholson is out of this world. I seriously to this day would not be in the same room with the man. And the maze scene? I don’t think I drew in a breath. And it’s really stood the test of time too. I watch it now and still get creeped out. My husband bought the book for me years ago and I’m still too chicken to read it. Maybe next year.

Number 1

No surprises here folks. The Exorcist. The more I watch this movie, the more I appreciate its brilliance. When evil touches young Regan making her behavior erratic, her mother seeks medical help. The scenes where Regan goes through some of those tests were just as, if not more, powerful as the possession scenes. This movie becomes more and more disturbing at every turn and I can see why so many people freaked out when it was released in 1973. This movie is now 40 years old. It’s still very disturbing and that’s why it’s number one on so many lists.

Thanks for talking a little walk through my horror movie list with me today. You can take the blankie down now—I’m done. MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Happy Halloween! BOO!

Kate Robbins debut novel, Bound to the Highlander is available now. When Kate isn't scaring the crap out of herself watching scary movies, she can be found blogging at her page, Into the Highland Mists.

Sunday, 27 October 2013


by Michelle Helliwell

Hallowe’en is just around the corner – we carved pumpkins this past Saturday, and I just pulled together my youngest son’s costume (Mario of Nintendo fame). While I love fall, I will admit that Hallowe’en is actually not my favourite holiday (and yes, I do consider it one). I gave up trick or treating at 11 or so, because I hated it. I’m not sure exactly why, though I have a theory, and it might have to do with the fact that I don’t thrill in being scared.

I have an active imagination, and need little encouragement to scare the crap out of myself. I hate being startled – my reaction is strong and tends towards violence (fight THEN flight) – and while I don’t mind a vampire movie with non-sparkly, kinda scary vampires, I am not a horror movie person. Zombies honestly and truly creep me out, and I do not enjoy being creeped out all that much. Haunted corn mazes hold absolutely no appeal for me.

That being said, I do have a curious, kind of love-hate relationship with ghosts. I grew up with ghost stories being told on both sides of my family, and I remember listening to them with a curious mix of thrill and trepidation. My favourite scary movie is TheChangling, with George C. Scott. Watch it and I guarantee you the sight of a rubber ball coming down stairs will never ever again seem innocent. Despite the fact that I'm convinced they are faked--like most of so-called "reality tv"--I can't watch those ghost hunter shows on TV without being creeped out. One of my favourite reads is a collection of ghost stories by famous Nova Scotiafolklorist Helen Creighton, titled Bluenose Ghosts.

Whether ghosts are real might be up for debate, but I fall into the camp of believers. It doesn't mean I think all ghosts are real, but that some have the possibility of being so. I also believe there could be a perfectly rational explanation for ghosts that involves string theory, space-time and other bits of physics we don’t fully understand yet. I grew up in a house with cold spots, miscellaneous noises and other oddities, and my mom, I firmly believe, carries the things around with her wherever she goes. New house, old house, it hardly seems to matter—they come in and set up shop.

I am not sure about the house I live in now – it’s older – 160 years or so. When we first went through it with the real estate agent, after I asked about foundations and wiring, I asked about ghosts and was told, to the best of the owner’s knowledge, there wasn’t any. I don’t think I could ever buy a house without asking about this. (Apparently the pizza shop two doors down from me used to be a saloon, and that, apparently does have ghostly visitors.) Every once in a while I smell cigarette smoke in a few places—mostly in one spot in the kitchen, by the back door and outside in the driveway—and no one has smoked in this house for a long time. It could be smell leeching out of old plaster walls—I’ve considered that. And frankly, I’m not sure what I think about it.

I’m not particularly religious and I don’t know what comes after death, if anything does beyond basic recycling. I’ve had an idea for a contemporary story that involves a ghost, so I suppose before I write it I should work that out. :)

In the meantime however, I think I might crack the cover of Bluenose Ghosts once again. I just won’t read it at night. ;)

Michelle Helliwell is an aspiring historical romance author who loves fairy tales and myths, and is eagerly waiting for this whole zombie thing to blow over. She blogs regularly, and pins far too much.

Friday, 25 October 2013

To NaNo, or not to NaNo: that is the question!

by Annette Gallant

A week from today another NaNoWriMo (short for National Novel Writing Month) will be starting, and I’m on the fence about whether or not to take part. In an effort to sort it all out, here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons as they pertain to me:

1) The challenge of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words during the month of November, which works out to 1667 words a day. 50,000 words on a shiny, new project. Just thinking about it makes me excited!  While 50K is not enough for a novel, it's more than enough for a decent sized novella.  And since I have a three novella series I've been jonesing to write, this would definitely get me on my way.  PRO!

2) For longer than I care to think about, I’ve been revising my women’s fiction manuscript. Trust me when I say I’m ready to move on. But if I take a month off to write something else, I’ll be going further away from my goal of finishing it. CON!

3) Speaking of said manuscript, the big reason it’s been such a pain to revise is because the first draft was a complete mess. Subplots that had nothing to do with the main plot. Characters that were all over the place. Too many scenes and not enough sequels (thanks, Anne!). The list goes on and on. And why was the rough draft so bad? Because most of it was written during a previous NaNoWriMo. (But oh the fun of writing with abandonment, using nothing more than my plot idea and a vague concept of who my characters were as a guideline!) Definitely a CON.

4) Having learned the painful lesson that no plot is very much a problem for me, I am now a reformed pantser trying to become an uber-plotter. So if I do participate in NaNoWriMo this year, I will make sure to have a solid synopsis, a fully fleshed out beat sheet, and character profiles in hand before I start. Which hopefully will result in a much tighter story at the end. Despite all the extra work involved up front, this falls into the PRO category.    

 5) There is an energy that happens when you take part in NaNoWriMo. Knowing there’s a community of writers all trying to achieve the same goal at the same time spurs me to keep going. Plus, it helps me build the habit of writing every day, which I’m usually struggling to do at this point of the year. PRO!

6) I’m not an overly competitive person, at least not when it comes to writing. But inevitably at some point I tend to become more word count focused than story focused. As I’ve outlined above, this doesn’t bode well for my manuscripts, especially once December 1st rolls around. So a definite CON.

While there are some compelling reasons for why I should participate this year, as I wrote this blog post I kept going back to number 2. I’ve invested a lot of time and energy in my women’s fiction manuscript, and it’s a story I feel strongly about and want to finish soon. So while the idea of writing something new is very appealing to me, the timing is not right. As much as I’d love to participate, on November 1st I’m going to give NaNoWriMo a pass and content myself with cheering on those who do participate.

Will you be participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Have you participated in the past?  

Annette Gallant

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Wednesday, 23 October 2013

My Take on Setting

“Greetings.” The whisper came straight back at me in an echo so quick that I knew I was very near the wall of the cave, then it lost itself, hissing, in the roof.
There was movement there – at first, I thought, only an intensifying of the echo’s whisper, then the rustling grew and grew like the rustling of a woman’s dress, or a curtain stirring in the draught. Something went past my cheek, with a shrill, bloodless cry just on the edge of sound. Another followed, and after them flake after flake of shrill shadow, pouring down from the roof like leaves down a stream of wind, or fish down a fall. It was the bats, disturbed from their lodging in the top of the cave, streaming out now into the daylight valley. They would be pouring out of the low archway like a plume of smoke.

- Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave

The Crystal Cave is the first book in Mary Stewart’s Merlin series, which I read when it came out in the seventies and still re-read every few years. One of the main reasons these books are keepers for me is Stewart’s gift for setting.

When writing setting, I’m always tempted to focus too much on what’s visible. The true art of describing setting is in using as many of the five senses as possible, and I’m trying to get better at that. One of the reasons I chose the above example is that there’s very little use of sight here. 

For me, the magic in this description comes from Stewart’s choice of words. ‘a shrill, bloodless cry.’ ‘flake after flake of shrill shadow.’ ‘like leaves down a stream, or fish down a fall.’ Knowing we are in a cave, we don’t need the author to tell us what’s happening. With the line ‘something went past my cheek’, we immediately think ‘bats’. The visual references given are imagined, not actually seen.

How much setting is too much? For me, it’s too much when it slows down the story. When it starts to read like a grocery list. When I sense that the author is trying too hard. If a character is going from point A to point B, with nothing important happening plot-wise in between, I don’t need to see everything they pass along the way.

It’s interesting how strong characters tend to make for strong description. If a character is well-developed, I tend to see through their eyes and feel like I’m right there, even if the author hasn’t spent a lot of words on setting. What’s important in the setting is what’s important to the character, and that’s all we really need to see.

Here’s a fun writing exercise I once had to do at a workshop. Choose a familiar setting – your backyard, your bedroom, any place you know really well, and describe it from the point of view of a blind character. Does the afternoon sun come in the window, heating a patch on the bed? Is there a transition from pavement to grass? What can you hear? Smell? Try it. The results might surprise you.

Jennie Marsland

Monday, 21 October 2013

Blogging: The Urge to Phone it In

Nikki McIntosh is a chick-lit writer.  Even though no one's supposed to say "chick-lit" anymore. 

Man, I don't want to do this blog post.

Phonin' it in.  Batman style.
I'll admit it, I looked through my blog posts on my personal site to see if I could just cut and paste something
in here this week.  Sadly, I'm not that prolific on my blog either, so unless you want to know what my "random act of kindness" was six months ago, or how I was doing on building a new habit back in February (update: sucking!), then it's really not a goldmine of material.

It's not that I hate blogging, but every time it's my turn to write something for our group site, I ask myself the same question:

What do I have to say about writing that's interesting?

I'm not published.  I don't feel like I've conquered any particular writing related subject well enough to offer advice about it ... so what is it I'm going to say to the world that's of particular value to anyone?

And then I remembered why I wanted to blog in the first place.   Blogging is an opportunity to sell
yourself.  It's a chance for people to hear your voice and think ... I want more of that. Where do I get it?  

Sure, it's great if you offer up some gold nuggets about writing along the way (here's one:  make sure when writing your dinosaur romance to include an innovative conflict for your T-Rex hero ... "end of the world is coming" has been done to death!)  ... but as I was thinking of how I could just phone it in this week, I realized that every time I put something out there I need to make sure it sounds like me.  I've got roughly seven paragraphs to win you over. I need to make sure they count.

"All that goin' on"
And speaking of making it count, I guess I should update my own site.  Chris Evans and Chris Pine have been on my front page forever doing nothin' but looking good (but doing it well), so I really should get back to putting something new up there.

"Why Ryan Gosling Should Do Every Movie Shirtless" just isn't going to write itself, now, is it?

What about you?  Do you ever phone in your posts?  Are you blogged-out?  Lovin' your blog and never in need of content?  Somewhere in the middle?

Nikki McIntosh
Website |  Twitter |  Facebook

Friday, 18 October 2013

Writing Tools and Promotion in the Big, Bad World Wide Web

 by Tara C MacDonald

Having headed the marketing committee for Romance Writers of America: Atlantic Canada Chapter and worked outside of that with other authors I have some experience to share with who is out there promotion-wise and what choices are available.

Once you write your book and have it edited what do you do with it? If you're an indie author you're on your own for marketing. You are your own marketing department. Luckily, there's an entire resource of information out there courtesy of authors like Marie Force to show you where you should be, what you should do and how to have fun with this on a budget. If you're with a small publisher you may encounter the same thing as some publishers don't have the structure set up to fully market a book. Having spoken with Entangled Publishing at RT 13 their structure is set up so that their team gets paid on how successful the book is as I understand it. If you're with a big name New York publisher then congratulations! You may still need to market your book though and if you have a backlist this will help pull them in with current marketing creating readers.

Step 1:

Time to spend before you publish your book. What genre is it? Who is the current market? Google books similar to yours and see how they're doing on Amazon rankings and with fans on Goodreads. Determine if your book is different or the same. Talk to other authors on writing loops or at Savvy Authors and discuss what they did in your genre.

Step 2:
Develop a marketing plan.

Use the marketing four Ps: Product (Service); Place, Price, Promotion. Check out this link for more details on what these mean Sometimes it really is all about your target market and getting the book in front of the reader. If you can include a blog tour with fellow authors around your launch that's great timing for marketing your book.

Step 3:

In your research you may have run across the following organizations to help with marketing. Here's a few I've used for the romance genre and had recommended to me when I helped authors with their marketing. You can't do it all so why not have the help you need to get your book going? Also, once you develop your own marketing plan you'll be able to choose which resource you want to outsource.

1. Trindiebooks
4. Goddess Fish Promotions
5. Eye on Romance

Step 4:

It's time to consider speaking in public.  Is there a library event you can go to as an author?  Contact your library.  Interested in holding a physical launch? Is there a coffee shop/restaurant/bookstore that will work with you to hold a launch that is in your budget?  Writers' Groups:  Is there a writers' group you can speak at or are already a member of for your genre? is there a Word on the Street near you that you can have a booth at to reach readers?  Are you computer literate and interested in learning more about social media - there's social media workshops in business networks all the time locally.  Join one and learn more so that you can host an online Facebook or Twitter party to reach readers with your book. 

Photo by Rebecca Clarke

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Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Anthony Robbins Needs to Friend Me on Facebook

Since I began writing, I’ve become an expert on just about everything motivational. My bookshelves are overflowing with all the wisdom I’ve purchased.  Let’s not forget my town library. I’d like to extend a formal “thank you” for the wisdom I’ve borrowed from it too, and the librarians who don’t cut and run when I enter.

It’s quite likely the staff at all the bookstores within a hundred-kilometre radius of my home believe I have self-esteem issues – or at the very least, a serious lack of self-awareness. Nothing could be further from the truth. I do, however, have a complete and utter lack of self-control.
I can’t seem to resist self-help books.  There should be a twelve-step program for that.

I swear it’s my characters, not me, with the issues I’m truly trying to address. These books are but the tip of the iceberg in my unrelenting quest to get them some therapy. You can’t just roll up to the therapist’s window and ask for a Happy Meal to serve to your angst-ridden demon hero. Trying to ask the questions in code doesn’t work, either. “I have this friend with a problem…” leads to a lot of awkward misunderstandings. Things like this need to be finessed. So I buy the books. (You may be wondering about the yoga how-tos in the photo and where they fit in. I left out my books on sword-fighting and the history of warfare, but I use the yoga to balance out any conflicting aggression issues.)

When I start a story I have to ask myself, why is this demon so ridden with angst? (As if being a demon isn’t reason enough…) I don’t want to cure him, at least not completely. He’s a demon. A demon should be alpha. At least, up to a point.

My current hero doesn’t really have a problem with being a demon. His issue is more that he doesn’t like for anyone to see that side of him.  And why doesn’t he want for anyone to see it?

Under normal circumstances he’s a fun-loving guy with a great sense of humour. When he’s seriously miffed, however, he turns into the Hulk. (You won’t like him when he’s angry.) Only he’s red, not green. That probably makes him more of a cross between the Hulk and Hell Boy.
So sometimes, Mr. Robbins, it’s best not to “awaken that giant within…”

But if he’s a demon, why does he care?

The heroine, of course. She’s afraid of demons. (Now *there* is a woman with issues...) The hero will need to win her trust in order to resolve a few plot points, and really. Who in their right mind is going to trust a demon? The heroine may have her own issues to work through, but she’s not stupid.

This means if he wants her, my hero has some serious changing to do. (This is fiction, remember. I can make the guy want to change.) He’ll have to develop hobbies that don’t involve killing people. He may have to scale back on the bar fights. And I’m guessing the shape-shifting tendencies and anger management issues will need to be addressed.

I am totally prepared for this challenge.

So, Anthony Robbins, you need to Friend Me on Facebook. Find out how I motivate demons.

I bet if I try, I can even make them do yoga.

Paula Altenburg has been a member of Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada since 2000, and served as president, vice-president, and newsletter editor. Paula lives in rural Nova Scotia, Canada, with her husband and two sons. Once a manager in the aerospace industry, she now enjoys the freedom of working from home and writing fulltime. Paula currently writes paranormal romance and category romance for Entangled Publishing.Visit her at, follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook and Goodreads.

 Coming November 26th from Entangled Select

Friday, 11 October 2013

It's Thanksgiving Week in Canada

It’s Thanksgiving week in Canada and time to celebrate!

I’m thankful for so much. For my family of course, and my friends, but also for the chance I’ve had to expand my writing career working with RWA and RWAC. I am always amazed at the amount of talent here in Atlantic Canada. I’ve been writing and now editing for eleven years and it has helped me to get through some tough times – divorce, illness, job loss. I never forget to say thanks for this each and every Thanksgiving.

On another note, a really wonderful and eclectic group of ten Atlantic Canadian authors have banded together (I’m one of them as are several RWACers!) to offer a contest hosted at Storyfinds!  

There is a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift certificate and a $25 Kobo certificate over the next few days.

Plus, just for fun, Storyfinds is featuring Canadian authors this week.

Happy Reading!

Lilly Cain

The Confederacy Treaty Series – Alien Revealed, The Naked Truth, and Undercover Alliance -- from Carina PressUndercover Alliance  released in ebook and audio formats.

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Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Blue October

by Heidi Hamburg

A long time ago, when I was a girl of twenty, I read Portrait of Jennie by Robert Nathan. I remember feeling sad as I approached the end of the book because of what was happening in the story, and simply because something beautiful was ending too soon.

Except that it wasn’t. There, on the page after the end of the novel, was a gift: this poem. It has been with me ever since.

It comes back to me each year when the Bear Hills across the river turn misty in the mornings, when the red of maples and the gold of poplars light torches among the dark pines, when the frost takes the morning glories that climb the south side of the house, and turns them into tattered black handkerchiefs.

I loved it the first time I read it. Decades later, I still do.

Now Blue October

Now blue October, smoky in the sun,
Must end the long, sweet summer of the heart.

The last brief visit of the birds is done;
They sing the autumn songs before they part.
Listen, how lovely—there’s the thrush we heard
When June was small with roses, and the bending
Blossom of branches covered nest and bird,

Singing the summer in, summer unending—
Give me your hand once more before the night;
See how the meadows darken with the frost,
How fades the green that was the summer’s light.
Beauty is only altered, never lost,
And love, before the cold November rain,
Will make its summer in the heart again.

Robert Nathan (1894-1985)

Heidi Hamburg

Monday, 7 October 2013

Want a Quickie?

by Cathryn Fox

Okay, now that I have your attention!!

I know we’re all crazy busy, and when we’re chasing a deadline and only have time for a quickie—a quick easy dinner fix that is—we usually reach for the phone and order in.  Well forget about the phone, and instead reach for that crock pot!

The last week has been insanely busy for me, in a good way!  I’m deep into edits on three books with three different publishers, and because I’m going to be in the launch for two of the lines, the deadlines are crazy!  I’m lucky to find time to eat in the run of a day, let alone cook, and since I’m sitting on my backside most of the day, I want to eat nutritious meals without having to spend hours preparing them.  Since my husband works twelve hour shifts he isn’t always here to help out in the kitchen department, which means I have to be creative if I want to put a nutritious meal on the table.  That’s where my crock pot comes in.  It’s so easy to toss a bunch of things into it in the morning and come dinner time, voila, a home cooked delicious and healthy meal.  Today I’d like to share one of my favorite crock pot meals with you!

Easy Peasy, Beef and Broccoli!

In crock add:
1 cup of beef broth
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup low salt soy sauce
3 cloves of garlic minced
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
Beef cut into strips
2tlbs corn starch.

Cook five to six hours and then toss in broccoli for abut thirty minutes or until tender.  When it’s done, serve over rice and you have a beautiful meal in minutes!

Please be sure to sign up for Cathryn’s newsletter at to find out about her upcoming releases and a chance to win some fabulous prizes!

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Friday, 4 October 2013

Time for the Writing Retreat

It's October -- and you know what that means.

Writing retreat time is upon us! Let all the world rejoice!

What do RWACers do at our annual retreat?

First, there's the gorgeous drive to the cottage, which we rent each year. So far we've been doing one retreat per year, for the past decade at the same beautiful spot, but next year we're thinking of adding a second retreat and trying out some new locations.

People arrive with supplies.

The first night is generally taken up with unwinding, chatting, sharing a potluck dinner and re-setting our brains away from the everyday into the zone of the retreat.

We also usually play Whose Muse is Whose? We bring a picture of the inspiration for characters we're working on, and then we try to guess what sort of characters they will be in the book, and which writer is inspired by them.

Mini quiches have been a mainstay of retreat breakfasts. Mmm.

RWAC retreat glam shots -- because we don't want to be misleading to the public perception of romance writers.

For the past few years, we've started jotting down memorable out-of-context quotes said during the retreat.

In past years, we've scheduled craft-of-writing workshops.

For the past few years, we've replaced the workshops with timed writing sessions, where for a one-hour period everyone works on their current projects. No talking. Just tappity-tappity-tap on the keyboards, or scribble-scribble in notebooks.

All of this timed writing and wine drinking really pays off.

The brainstorming session has been the overall favorite of RWACers by far!

The walk over to the main lodge for dinner at the restaurant is guaranteed to be a tiny piece of paradise -- unless it's raining. That's what the cars are for.

Doesn't mean we behave, though. I'm not sure what it's like to be the dinners sitting near us, but it sure is fun to be us.

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Thursday, 3 October 2013

Are you​ Thinking of Enterin​g a Contest?​

By Georgiana Harding

I love entering contest for the soul reason of getting my BIC ( butt in chair ) It gives me a goal, motivation and placing becomes the gravy! This is my other writing group here in Virginia Beach and it's a great contest to enter.

Good luck!

A couple of weeks ago, we posted about Chesapeake Romance Writers’ 2nd Annual “Finish the Damn Book” Contest. The contest, in memory of our late member Judi McCoy and her beloved Bichon Frise Rudy, opened to entries on September 1 and will accept your manuscripts until midnight on October 31.

We’ve now solidified all of our final judges and they are awesome!
Paranormal – Amanda Barnett (Wild Rose Press)
Contemporary – Danielle Fine (Definition House)
Young Adult/New Adult – Deb Smith (Belle Books)
Mainstream with Romantic Elements – Marie Lamba (Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency)
Historical - Jordy Albert (Booker Albert Literary Agency)

All contest information and entry forms can be found on our contest web page.

So come on, finish that damned book and strut your stuff in our contest! You’ll be glad you did!

Georgiana Harding

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Musings on Style

by Pat Thomas Publisher, Editor and Writer

Merriam-Webster defines style is a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed…a distinctive manner of expression (as in writing or speech).

An author’s style is the unique way they handle conventions, along with the words they choose, the decisions they make when faced with writing choices, and how they string the words together. Experienced writers understand the importance of having a consistent style within a genre. They know that changes in style are noticed by loyal readers and draw attention to the word or sentence level, and slow down the reader.

When a writer chooses a different writing style it’s often because they’re switching genres. For instance, the same author would write differently to compose a YA romance than they would write to create an adult thriller with romantic elements. For an aware writer, those differences are conscious, intentionally meant to appeal to a different audience and also to cue loyal readers that this is something different. Often a penname clarifies this, so readers can find the books they enjoy.

If decisions aren’t clear in a writer’s mind, it’s difficult for a writer to successfully switch genres and appeal to different audiences. A writer using the same name and same style and branching into a different genre is likely to disappoint and even upset loyal readers who can be confused and disappointed when they purchase books with the expectation of a certain type of read, and it’s not delivered.

Goodreads says JD Robb and Nora Roberts demonstrate this shifting of style well: Nora Roberts explained her decision to use the penname J.D. Robb saying the style of writing was different in those books than her Nora Roberts books. Nora Roberts, crafted two different styles to purposefully attract and hold two reading audiences.

 If you were to look at style sheets, based on a book by Nora Roberts and another by J.D. Robb, you would quickly discover different stylistic choices are made regarding sentence length, complexity of sentence structure, use of punctuation, choice of words and so much more. Likenesses and variations are planned and applied consistently. The style you’d find in one book by J.D. Robb would appear in other books by J.D. Robb.

Julianne MacLean, a RWAC member and New York Times Today bestselling author successfully writes in two genres: historic romance, and contemporary. To cue readers about the differences she began her contemporary line as Eve Mitchell (with Julianne MacLean also on the cover) and as Julianne MacLean for her historicals. The different genres reveal different plot constructions, different sentence lengths, and moving from linear in her historic romances to a more organic and recursive plot movement in her new contemporary The Color of Heaven series. All planned. All crafted. And applied consistently.

Bev Pettersen, RWAC award-winning and Amazon bestselling romantic suspense author, works with consistent style but also pays particular attention to how her books look on e-readers. When she wears her reader’s hat, she finds that some conventions, like em dashes and deep indents, spaces between paragraphs and many other details affect the enjoyment of her ‘read’ because of the size and type of lighting on the e-reader. When she prepares to publish, Bev is very aware of spacing and punctuation, and how those things affect readers of her books. The decisions about those things become stylistic along with decisions she makes about serial commas and style of capitalization and so many other things.

Have you read books where writing conventions are applied inconsistently? Where the wording choices or use of capitals, or spelling variations have no pattern for a reader to relax within? Perhaps the author didn't know about the comma between adjectives of equal value, where the comma allows the reader to shuffle the adjectives without consequence as they read. When there's no comma, there's no flexibility for the reader.

By not applying a convention, the author takes away the permission a reader would otherwise have to choose. The omission of that comma signals the reader the rules have changed, that the reader has no license to create the text and meaning their way. They must figure out a new pattern – and if there’s not one, that can be a difficult task. Make reading harder. Patterns in style and use of conventions actually give the reader a type of freedom, and allow readers latitude to select and change text to create meaningful connections as they read.

Conventions are needed in the same way we need street signs and speed limits.

Conventions, like street signs, alert us as readers. An example would be the convention of the quotation mark left off the end of dialogue paragraphs when the same speaker continues into a new paragraph – after changing direction slightly. If a writer closes every paragraph of dialogue with closing quotes even if the speaker continues, then it confuses a reader. It will feel like the ball’s been passed to the next player when that’s not the case. Several readers will note it and move on. Others will be confused by the closing quotes. It will slow them down considerably as they reread and think harder, not about meaning, but on how to create meaning with the structure of the text. Another level of difficulty is added when you change what readers expect a text to be like.

Unexpected changes draw readers out of the story in a way that slows them down, until they adjust to the style – and they can only do that if the unexpected style choices are consistent. Otherwise it’s starts and stops and reconfiguring to get the meaning. But consistent application of style allows the pace to move at a clip.

Newfoundland writer, Michael Crummey is an example of an award-winning writer who used this awareness of style to advantage in his book, Galore. He used em dashes instead of quotation marks to indicate dialogue. It was a British tradition that took getting used to for North American readers but as soon as readers understood the signal for dialogue it worked for Crummey’s readers. He was applauded and lauded for presenting dialogue in this way. If however he’d used quotation marks sometimes and the em dash at other times it would confuse rather than be brilliant.

In a similar way, highway planners face the need to move traffic more quickly as well as satisfy driver expectations. They must consider drivers as they plan new ways to handle traffic. Posting signs in metric sometimes and in miles other times, without rhyme or reason, would confuse. Pick one. Be consistent. Four-way stops, lights at intersections, or traffic circles or overpasses – handle them the same way every time. The choices make a difference on how cars move along a section of highway and how readers create meaning and enjoyment as they read.

Gertrude Stein might disagree.

Looking to be different, and to guide readers in different ways is not anything new. In 1933, Gertrude Stein did this in her autobiography, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in the voice of Toklas, her life partner. Nothing about Stein’s book is conventional. She was a scholar, and knew exactly what the conventions were, and how they were traditionally applied to text. Because of that, she could remove them – dashes, question marks, and apostrophes, exclamation marks, and hyphens and sometimes even commas. From what I understand, Stein’s reasoning was that careful wording allowed a shifting of gears that soon made ‘how to read the text’ obvious without the punctuation others relied on.

She claimed readers didn’t need to have punctuation if writing was clear and the meaning obvious through careful word selection and wording. Stein chose not to use certain ambiguous words too. She made careful decisions and applied them in scholarly ways, in obvious ways her reader understood once the original shock of change settled. Her book became a literary bestseller and Stein quickly rose from relative obscurity into the light of mainstream regard.

Her writing choices and the way she predicted and planned for her audience response, show us that things can be dealt with in new ways, with care and consistency. I guess the message here is to know what you do, and why, and apply that consistently.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on this topic.

Pat Thomas