Keeping Readers Engaged

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We’ve all experienced it. We start reading a novel that got off to a great start. Then we lost interest. My mother was one of those readers who would plow through to end, no matter what. Even if the book was genuinely awful. Me, not so much. Life is too short to waste on a poorly written story.

Keeping readers engaged can be a challenge. Even the best conceived story ideas are useless if your novel becomes slow and boring.

Pacing is an important part of good storytelling. However, excessive back stories, boring or redundant dialog, and trivial details can slow your pace to a crawl. Once the reader loses interest, you’re done. A bored reader will toss your book aside and never come back. So, how do you keep the middle of your story interesting? Here are a few suggestions.

Backstories should only be revealed on a need to know basis

I only include those backstories which are relevant and move the story forward. Then I typically reveal them through dialog. The rest of my backstory remains in my notes.

If it’s been said once it may not need to be repeated

Your character has told another character that his mother died in a car crash. He doesn’t need to repeat himself. If it comes up again, consider using it in the narrative. For example, “as she hit the accelerator, he reminded her about his mother.” Inserting redundant dialog would have ruined a fast-paced narrative. But what if he needs to tell his story to a different character? Consider adding a spin. His mother was driving drunk.

Fine details aren’t always useful information

Readers don’t care if your character is wearing a blue dress or a green dress, or if it has buttons or pockets. Detailed descriptions are only necessary when they enhance the story. For example, “She would wear her royal blue dress with the lace trim. It would be perfect for showing off the diamond pendant Jake had given her.” Boom. That’s all the reader needs to know. Leave the rest of the details to their imagination, and move on.

I think of each chapter as an episode to move the plot forward. It should reveal a character’s motives, or emotions, or something we didn’t know before. If a scene, or even an entire chapter, doesn’t enhance the overall story I’ll delete it. Each chapter, and scene, needs a purpose. If it doesn’t, then it’s nothing more than filler material which will bore the reader, and the last thing you want is for the reader to toss your book aside and leave a bad review.

Gayle Martin

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You Only Have Ten Seconds

So you’d better make them count

© Can Stock Photo/ stillfx

You have about ten seconds to capture a reader’s interest. Ten seconds. So my advice to you is to make them count. People have short attention spans, and social media is making them even shorter. This means you, the novel writer, had better grab their attention fast. If you don’t hook them within those first few seconds, they are far more likely to toss your book aside.

I think of my opening sentences as, “Lights, camera, action!” I always start with an action narrative. Nothing overly dramatic, such as explosions going off, but with something interesting enough to intrigue the reader so he or she will want to learn more. So, how do I do this? I write an opening sentence that creates tension, and I’ll use the first sentences from some of my Marina Martindale novels as examples.

Strong opening sentences

Rosemary McGee had the next traffic light perfectly timed until a car from the other lane suddenly cut in front of her minivan.

Well, I’m sure that got your attention. What happened next? Did she have a accident? You’ll have to read more to find out.

My openings aren’t always this dramatic, but even if the opening subject matter is more mundane, I can still create tension in my first line.

Emily St. Claire reached for another tissue to dab the sweat off her forehead and grab her water bottle, but the once-cold liquid had turned lukewarm.

Well, that certainly feels uncomfortable. So where is Emily? And why is it so hot? Again, you have to keep reading to find out more.

Opening lines and your characters

No doubt you’ve noticed I’ve included a character’s name in these opening lines, and you certainly want to start introducing your characters as soon as possible. However, you don’t necessarily have to include them in the opening sentences, nor does the opening line have to be about a leading character. Rosemary was actually a supporting character. My lead character is introduced a few sentences later when Rosemary asks her if she’s okay. Emily, on the other hand, is the lead character. My stories are all different, so my openings are different as well.

A descriptive opening line

Some authors like to begin their stories with a descriptive narrative of where the story takes place. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, you still need to create some tension. An opening paragraph that’s nothing more than a flowery, detailed description of the scenery without any action or tension is less likely to capture the reader’s attention. So unless something really interesting happens within the next paragraph or two there’s a good chance the reader will set the book aside. My advice is to end that fluffy narrative with something to suggest things aren’t quite as peachy as they appear. Here is a descriptive opening from another Marina Martindale novel.

The moonlight reflected off the snow-covered mountains, creating a dreamy, picturesque landscape, which could easily hide a deadly hazard.

Yikes! So what kind of hazard could be hiding there? Again, you have to read more.

Remember, when writing fiction, the conflict drives the plot, so you want to create as much tension as you can. The sooner you start creating that tension, the quicker you’ll draw your reader in.

Gayle Martin, aka Marina Martindale

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And Now for the End of our Story

Every story ever written has two things in common; a beginning and an ending. It’s at the end of the story where we, as storytellers, deliver the punch lines which will impact our readers.

Regardless of your genre, most readers want, and expect, a happy ending. One which ties up all of the loose ends and leaves them satisfied. More often than not, this is what they get. In my genre, romance, it’s pretty simple. Boy meets girl. They fall in love, but there are conflicts and obstacles to be overcome. Then, once the conflicts are resolved, everyone lives happily ever after. THE END. Then again, some of the most well-loved and compelling romance stories ever written didn’t end with the couple living happily ever after.

Remember Romeo and Juliet? This timeless tale of two star crossed lovers ended with a double suicide, which compelled their two warring families to put an end to their bitter feud.

More recently there was Gone with the Wind. After thinking she was in love with Ashley Wilkes for all those years, Scarlett suddenly realizes she’s been in love with Rhett the entire time. Unfortunately for Scarlett, Rhett’s response is to walk away and slam the door behind him, leaving her to ponder her next move. This ending certainly left us wanting more.

Another famous ending comes from the movie, Casa Blanca, which was actually based on a play called, Everyone Comes to Rick’s. It too is a love story with a twist. Boy meets girl. Girl ditches boy. Boy meets girl a second time, only now she’s brought her husband along. So, along with some unforgettable dialog, (“Of all the gin joints in all the places in the world, she had to walk into mine.”), we all root for Rick to get Ilsa back. Instead he puts her and her husband on the plane and sends them away for good. The final scene ends with the plane taking off while Rick walks away with Louis Renualt saying, “You know, Louie, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

Good stories aren’t always about happy endings. Sometimes they’re about doing the right thing, even when doing the right thing isn’t so easy to do. The same can also be said of real life.

Gayle Martin

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How to Skillfully Use Flashbacks in Your Novels

A section of a clock placed in front of a starry sky.
© Can Stock Photo / Nikki24

Readers give us great feedback. Nearly all of the reader reviewers for my debut Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, The Reunion, commented on how well the flashback scenes were done.

If used properly, flashbacks can greatly enhance the story. They’re a terrific tool for telling the backstory. Poorly done, however, and they can become a distraction or even a hindrance. They block your story flow and annoy the reader.

How to SKILLFULLY USE flashbacks in your novel

  • Use flashbacks sparinglyThe Reunion has fifty chapters, but only four of those chapters include flashbacks. The story is set in the present time. Therefore, I didn’t want to spend too much time with the flashbacks.
  • Your flashbacks should be relevant to the present time. The Reunion is about two lovers having a second chance many years later. The flashbacks were a tool to allow the reader to see the characters meet for the first time and get a general feel for their earlier relationship. However, I didn’t include their original break up as a flashback. Instead, it’s told in the dialogue. Dialogue, by the way, is another great tool for telling the backstory.
  • Watch where you insert a flashback. Never drop a flashback in the middle of a scene, especially if it’s cliffhanger. This will greatly upset your reader. I lead up to the flashback at the ending of a present day chapter. This prepares the reader for the flashback in the next chapter.

how to place a flashback

This flashback from The Reunion includes the ending paragraphs from Chapter One, with the last paragraph setting up the flashback scene. The flashback begins with Chapter Two.

* * *

Gillian looked a good ten years younger than her actual age. Despite all the time that had passed, she still looked much the same. About the only noticeable difference between then and now was that her long blonde hair was now a shoulder-length pageboy. As she reminisced about the past her mind suddenly filled with a whirlwind of images of all they had shared, the good times as well as the bad. It was like watching a movie, but the scenes were spliced together out of sequence.

“Calm down, Gillian,” she told her reflection. “You’ve got to pull yourself together.” As she took a few more deep breaths the events of one particular day began playing back in her mind with crystal clarity. It was the day she first laid eyes on Ian Palmer.

TWO

Gillian jammed her paintbrush into her palette and glanced at the clock. It was almost four twenty-five. Class would be over at four-thirty.

“Damn it,” she said under her breath as she tried to work more white paint into the canvas. This particular painting simply wasn’t coming together, and the more she worked with it the worse it became. It happened to every artist from time to time, but it was never good when it happened in a university art class the day before the project was due, and the painting in question would count toward the final grade.

In conclusion

As you can see, I’ve set the reader up for the flashback by referencing about how the events of one particular day played back in the character’s mind. The reader is well prepared, and expects, the next chapter to be a flashback.

And finally, I’ve only used flashbacks in The Reunion. So far I’ve not included any flashbacks in any of my later Matina Martindale contemporary romances. I only used them in The Reunion because of the long interval of time between two characters’ interactions.

Use flashbacks sparingly, and then only use them when they are absolutely necessary to enhance your plotline.

Gayle Martin, aka Marina Martindale

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Redeemable vs Non-redeemable Villains

© Can Stock Photo / hjalmeida

I enjoy streaming a syndicated radio talk show called, Ground Zero with Clyde Lewis. The show has interesting, offbeat topics, and listening helps me unwind at the end of a busy workday. The other night Clyde talked about the latest Godzilla movie. He described how the title character has evolved from an evil beast to a defender of the planet. That’s quite a leap indeed, and it was a fascinating discussion.

While I don’t write science fiction or horror myself, those genres do allow more leeway for using symbolism for political undertones. This may be the case with Godzilla. However, there are certain unwritten rules that fiction authors must follow because it’s what readers expect. High on the list is that good always triumphs over evil.

Fiction plotlines, regardless of genre, are conflict driven. The antagonist creates the conflict when he or she interferes with the protagonist. The antagonist is there to block whatever goal the protagonist is trying to achieve. This is why most antagonists are villains. And the more devious and evil the villain, the more drama and intensity to the story.

In real life, however, people can and do make poor choices. Some learn from their mistakes. In fiction, they would be redeemable characters. For example, Josh, from my recent Marina Martindale novel, The Letter, is a con artist. He’s working a Ponzi scheme with two unseen characters. However, as the character took shape I noticed he had some redeeming qualities which made him quite likable. So, I did a rewrite and made him into a redeemable villain. I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll sum it up and say that things aren’t always as they appear.

Most of my villians, however, are unrepentant. Some, like Maggie in The Deception, remain defiant, even while they’re carted off to prison. Most however, are their own undoing. They police shoot them, or they’re killed in accidents while trying to escape. They’re the unredeemable villains. The Godzillas, who have to have their comeuppance, otherwise readers won’t accept it. After all, karma’s a bitch. Not only in fiction, but in real life as well.


GM

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Let’s Just Say No to Sensitivity Readers

and Other Forms of Censorship

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I’ve been hearing a lot lately about a disturbing new trend, particularly in traditional publishing. The use of so-called, “sensitivity readers” to censor the author’s work. Their job is to ferret out any so-called trigger words from the authors’ manuscripts.

Here in the United States, our constitution guarantees our right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This would include artistic expression. Our constitution was never intended to protect anyone from being offended. In fact, it’s opposite. It insures our freedom to debate opposing points of view.

What is and isn’t offensive is oftentimes subjective. Let’s say, for example, that I write a scene in my book where two of my characters enjoy a burger together. If a vegan reads this, he or she might be offended. A chef, however, can read the very same scene and be inspired to create a gourmet burger for two.

I’m a woman who writes romance novels. Therefore, I include male characters in my books. I also write in the third person narrative. This means some of my chapters will be written from a male character’s point of view, even though I’ve never been a man. I’m not trying to make a political statement. I’m simply trying to tell a good story. However, to the so-called, “sensitivity expert,” I could be “stereotyping” men. And because I’m allegedly stereotyping men, I’m no longer allowed to write anything from a male point of view. This tramples on my right to freely express myself as an artist

Sensitivity is the new, politically correct word for CENSORSHIP. As a writer and and artist, censorship goes against everything I believe in. Well guess what? I’m a U.S. citizen, and I have a Constitutional right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Therefore, I will continue to write the stories I wish to write, and if the sensitivity thought police don’t like it then they can go straight to Hell. 

Gayle Martin

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The Problem with First Person Narratives

Graphic by Gayle Martin.

As fiction writers, we have two ways to present our story; as a first or a third person narrative. This time, however, I’m going to speak as a fiction reader, and not an author.

As a reader, I simply hate the first person narrative. To me, it’s the narcissistic narrative. It’s all, me, me, me, I, I, I, me, me, me, I, I, I. It gets really old, really quick. However, I still get it. The author wants me to have a more intimate relationship with the lead character. The problem for me is that I want to know what other characters, particularly the antagonists, are up to.

I love reading fiction written in the third person narrative. When I read a novel I’m essentially watching a movie in my head. I want to see the bad guys cooking up their evil schemes. I want to be with them when they do their dastardly deeds. I want to experience the moment of shock and surprise when the protagonist gets caught their trap. Likewise, I want to experience the protagonist’s feeling of triumph when the bad guys get their comeuppance. I also want to see the antagonist’s moment of regret. This is why, as a reader, I only read third person narratives. I get to see multiple points of view, and I get to see scene changes with different characters, just like they do in the movies.

I realize this is my own personal take. Other readers may like the first person narrative. To each their own. However, I prefer to write my own stories the same way I prefer to read them. This is why I only write in a third person narrative.

Gayle Martin

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Why I Don’t Recommend Using the F-bomb

I recall once looking at a sample chapter from another author’s novel. There, in the second sentence of the opening narrative, was the dreaded, F-bomb. That was it. I was done. The book may have had an intriguing title. However, once I saw that expletive, I was turned off. I had no reason to read any further.

I’m not saying I’m a total prude, and, for some genres, this kind of language may be both suitable and expected. However, it’s not appropriate for my work. I write contemporary sensual romance. (As Marina Martindale.) In my genre there simply is no reason for profanity, and most romance authors don’t use it. To me, profanity, especially when used in the narrative, a sign of a lazy, sloppy writer. A rank amateur. A good storyteller doesn’t need to use profanity. Plain and simple.

What about the dialog?

There will be times when an, “Oh my goodness gracious me,” simply won’t cut it. That’s when I’ll use an occasional damn or hell, or similar verbiage. However, I never use the F-bomb, or any other vulgar synonym for human genitalia. And the keyword here is occasional. As in infrequently. My characters aren’t potty mouths. Even my villains have more class than that.

Sometimes there will be an occasion when a stronger word may be expected. For example, I had once had a scene where one of my characters has just learned that her husband had been kidnapped. She’s understandably upset, and her response is, “What the —?” Another character interrupts her before she completes her sentence. Some readers may have interpreted it as, “What the hell?” Perfectly appropriate for the circumstances. Other readers, however, may have interpreted it differently and assumed she was about to say an entirely different word. Either way, I left it up to the reader to decide.

It may be the 21st century, but there are still people out there who find profanity, particularly the F-bomb, offensive. So why risk alienating potential readers who would have otherwise loved your book?


Gayle Martin

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Outline or Treatment?

© Can Stock Photo / katielittle25

It’s a perplexing question for authors, particularly newbies. Do you write an outline, or a treatment, before you begin writing your book? Or do you just sit down and start writing?

Outlines vs Treatments

Outlines are recommended for nonfiction books. They can be more precise. However, this blog is for fiction writers, so I’m going to talk about what is the best approach for us. And that is to write a treatment.

A treatment is a short summary of what your story will be about. The amount of detail you wish to include is entirely up to you. Some fiction authors may choose to write treatments summarizing each chapter. Others simply write a brief one or two paragraph description. It’s all a matter of personal preference. We’re creative writers, not technical writers, and the keyword is creativeFor us, writing is an art and not a science.

My treatments tend to be short; no more than a page to a page and a half. My objective is how I will begin my story, and how I will end it. I used to fret over what to include in the middle. However, experience has taught me to keep it brief. The details will come after I begin writing. In other words, my treatment is my launching point.

What about the characters?

Some fiction writers write bios for their characters which is certainly okay. However, I don’t do it myself. My characters come to life rather quickly, and once that happens they have minds of their own. (Which may sound freaky to non writers, but trust me, every fiction writer experiences this.)

Some authors like to refer back to their treatments as they write, and that’s perfectly okay. I prefer to put my treatment aside once I begin my story. As your characters come to life you may want to go in a different direction than you originally planned. Other ideas may come to you as you delve deeper into your story. Again it’s okay. We’re creative writers. This is how creativity works. 

Once my manuscript is complete I like to go back and look at my treatment. My books never end up as described in the original treatment. They always turn out better. It happens because I let my creativity flow as I write, and many new ideas will pop into my head as I go. My favorite example would be my first Marina Martindale novel, The Reunion.

One of my supporting characters, a young man named, Jeremy, was intended to be a rogue character. He would do his dirty deed and quickly exit the story. However, Jeremy was also Ian’s, the leading man’s, son. And as I got into the story, I quickly realized that Ian would never have a son like that. So, Jeremy went from rogue villain to a rival, competing with his father to win Gillian’s affections. This made for a completely unexpected twist in the story that resonated with me, and my readers. 

In conclusion

As I’ve evolved as a writer, my treatments have also evolved. They’ve become less detailed and more generalized. However, as I’ve stated before, how you choose to write your treatment is entirely up to you. There is no right or wrong way to go about it. 


Gayle Martin

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How to Write a Spicy Love Scene

As I enjoyed my morning coffee I came across something hilarious on Facebook. A BuzzFeed article featuring snippets of so-called love scenes from male romance authors. Some men write romance and do it well. Then there are others who, frankly, have no business picking up a pen. Their work was nothing but poor syntax and descriptions that went way beyond any sense of believability. It resulted in some of the funniest stuff I’ve read in years. Unfortunately, I don’t think writing comedy was their intention. 

So, how you do write a spicy scene that won’t make your readers burst out laughing? Just like with any other writing, it’s all about the proper technique. In one of my other blogs, Marina Martindale’s Musings, I wrote an article called, Sweet, Sensual or Erotic Romance?  It discusses the different romance subgenres. I write sensual romance, which is probably the most common. However, the advice I’m giving would also apply to writing erotica.

Have a basic understanding of anatomy and physiology.

Human beings come in two body types with two distinct sets of equipment. This equipment only functions in certain ways. When in doubt there are plenty of medical websites out there where you can get more information.

Handle euphemisms with care.

While you can call body parts by name in erotica, they may be too graphic or harsh for sensual romance. Euphemisms can be substituted, but be careful. Certain words, such as manhood, tend to be overused. Others, such as butterfly, can be downright corny. If you’re new to this kind of writing I would recommend reading some erotica from established authors, such as Anais Nin. 

Use proper grammar, syntax and punctuation

Nothing screams amatuer louder than poor writing. No matter the genre, if your story is poorly written it won’t be read. This is why even the most well known authors use editors and proofreaders. 

So, if you’re ready for a good belly laugh, I’ve posted a link to the article below. Be sure to put your coffee down first as an unexpected burst of laughter while you’re swallowing may result in the coffee coming out of your nose and splattering your computer screen. 


Gayle Martin

And here’s the article. 
I’m So Sorry, But Here’s How Some Male Authors For Really Real Described Women In Books

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