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I thought I’d have a bit of fun and set you guys a little task. Now, I am not the best query letter writer. No really, I’m not being modest. I really hate writing them.

Below, I have swallowed what little pride I have, and copied an old query letter of mine. Now, your task is to read it:

Donna Newton
1 Writers Lane
London

Mobile: 01234567891
pointwelldonna@googlemail.com

5th July 2011

Agent 007
Their Office
Agent Lane
London

Dear Mr Agent,

Re: Legend – The Messiah’s Cross

The Legend is a supernatural story set around two Reapers in a small Texan town. The idea was created for TV, and the pilot was written for the American market. Earlier this year I went to L.A., where my manager also suggested I adapt it into a novel.

I have been writing for many years and my previous publishing credits are all article based within the UK magazine market. I am a member of the Romance Writers of America and belong to Kristen Lamb’s Warrior Writers Boot Camp. I spent many years with Essex Police, where a large majority of my ideas are born. I have written one other novel, and am ready to start my third.

I have enclosed a synopsis and three chapters as requested in your guidelines.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Donna Newton

 

Okay, read it? Good.

An author friend of mine, Linda Regan, severely chastised me for writing this letter. I want you to see if you can tell me why. Put your comments in the – you’ve guessed it – comments box, and I will publish the corrected version in a couple of days.

Have fun, and be kind to me.

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The UK has had an amazing amount of snow this winter. I frequently found myself standing in the kitchen and just looking out the window at the white covered fields that surround my house – hey, I’ll use any excuse not to do the washing up and snow seemed to be the excuse everyone was using for not working. 😀

One thing is for sure. Snow is beautiful. It can transform even the most horrid of places into a serene and peaceful area befitting any Christmas card.

But then it struck me. Snow is extremely cunning and deceitful. It lures you in with the promise of fun but in reality, it has claimed the lives of so many people. In fact, snow is a real killer and its sister, the wicked Ice Queen, is worse. She is just pure evil and will stop at nothing to make our lives a misery, particularly the ones who don’t take up arms and prepare for her arrival. Frozen pipes, black ice, and have you ever been hit with an iced snow ball? That will draw blood, guaranteed.

So, then I started thinking of other items that lure us in with their perfect beauty, only to attack when we least expect it.

Roses are classed as one of the most elegant and beautiful flowers. Their aroma is intoxicating and they are arguably the most stunning flower created. They draw you in. You have to smell that rose, to touch its silky petals….and then, BAM! Either a thorn stabs you through the thumb or a big, fat bee flies out from the hidden depths of the flower and stings you on the nose. I mean, these flowers are given on Valentines Day as a sign of love for crying out loud. What you’re really getting is a box of thorns hidden by silk petals. If you love me, send me daisies. They won’t draw blood and there’s nowhere for any killer bugs to hide.

So I guess what I am really saying is this. If it happens to snow on Valentines Day, and you have to walk the length of your pathway to collect a box of roses from your post box, just stop and think of the senders real intentions.

Okay, so this was just a fun post, but can you think of any other perfections that have flaws?

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When I look back at the first book I wrote, I feel a twinge of guilt for my characters; all five of them to be precise, if I want to be picky and count the minions.

Why do I feel guilty? Because, unforgivably, I neglected to give them a life. I just dumped them on the wintery London streets of Shad Thames and said “Right, off you go and do this.”

To their credit, they did what I asked, but not to the best of their ability, and that is solely down to me, because I did not spend the time in getting to know them. A year ago, I would have sworn different. I would have told you my heroine was an independent woman, owned a bar and lived a relatively normal life with only her handsome neighbour next door for support. The hero, and her love interest, was an actor who was quiet and thoughtful and ……. Oh my God, so boring!!!

Then I met Kristen Lamb. She told me to write a back story for my antagonist, so I did. I proudly wrote four pages and emailed them over to her. Her reply? “Crap, do it again.” I was mortified. How could it be rubbish? (Yeah, ok, you can stop laughing.) But she was right. It was absolute tosh. Oh, how naïve I was back then.

The reason it was rubbish, and it’s so clear now that I cringe every time I think about letting Kristen read it, was this. My first antagonist was a nice, wholesome, little rich girl who went nuts because the guy she liked was in love with someone else. There was no venom about her. She was kind to others, well liked, popular at school – you get the picture. But my reasoning for creating this totally unrealistic girl, who went off the deep end, was because Glenn Close had done it in Fatal Attraction. If a block busting movie could do it, why couldn’t I? The problem was, Glenn Close was not the normal, hard working, successful woman she appeared to be before Michael Douglas slept with her. If you look closely, she was actually a borderline psychotic and her back story would have backed this up with actions, events and certainly haunting issues.

I was guilty of analysing the plot of a story too much and just letting the characters roll along for the ride. Now, however, and much to my husbands annoyance, I analyse and pick holes in everything on TV. Still, men are there for us women to annoy so I think it is a win-win situation. 😀

So, this is what I have been taught, and would strongly recommend to anyone creating a character:

It starts with their creation. They need a look, a height, and a style. Personally, I look for a picture of an actor or actress and go from there. Then give them a home, a childhood, parents, siblings, pets, school proms, jobs, friends, enemies, lovers, fears, stressors.…. you get the picture. What they do with them after that is then up to you. They can use them, annoy them, play with them or kill them. They can go to jail or become President, but their back story must lead them to the moment you start your book. You cannot have, like I did, a nice antagonist who turns in to a crazy, killing machine, because it is convenient to the plot.

If you are stuck, then I would suggest writing your own biography first. Start with where you were born, who your parents were, if you have any siblings. Remember your childhood memories, relationships, good and bad. Jobs you’ve liked and jobs you’ve hated. Gravesides you have stood at. Tragedies you’ve had the misfortune to bear. All these things define who you are now.

Oh, and one really important thing I have learnt is this. Your protagonist does not have to be perfect. Perfect is BORING! Give her a flaw. Make her human. I guarantee your reader will not dislike them for it.

Look at Mel Gibson in the first Lethal Weapon – he was a suicidal drunk. And Frasier, from the TV show of the same name, has serious commitment issues, but do we hate either of these characters? Do we ‘eck. In fact we become more compassionate towards them.

Now, as always, I want to know something. I want to know who your favourite protagonist is and what flaw they have. Hmmmm….. has that got you thinking?

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I want to play a game.

I’m going to say a word and I want to know the first image that comes to mind. Ready?

Sociopath.

What was the first thing you thought of? No cheating. Can I hazard a guess and say you probably thought of a deranged psychopathic killer, probably from one of your favourite horror films?

Now, what if I said you probably already knew a sociopath. Would you believe me? No? Okay, what if I said there was a high probability you may already work with one, live next door to one or even be friends with one. (God forbid you live with one.) Does that scare you?

Academics calculate that sociopaths account for around 5% of the population. So what exactly is a sociopath?

Forget for a moment that you are a nice person and imagine this: You have two friends who, for some unknown reason, have stopped talking to each other. They both confide to you of their sadness at the situation and that each is going to contact the other to make amends. Now, being the nice person you really are, you would eagerly share this information – after all, it’s the morally right thing to do and you want your friends back as, well, friends. But I want you to imagine deceiving and lying to them, convincing them that each is still expressing their dislike for the other. Then I want you to feel very smug and happy in the knowledge that you have singlehandedly kept them from being the good friends they once were.

Are you horrified? Could you ever see yourself acting in this way? Of course not, but that is probably because you have a little thing called a conscious. You cannot act in a bad way because you would feel appalled and guilty. A sociopath does not have this luxury. They feel nothing. They are crafty and deceitful, selfish, and manipulative. They will take what they want and do as they please and not experience the slightest ounce of remorse or regret for any of their actions. They will hurt a ‘friend’ just as easily as they would hurt a stranger and they will do it with a smile on their face and a song in their heart.

A staggering 1 in 20 people are sociopathic which means that 5% of the population lacks any shred of a conscious, and worse still, these people can be very difficult to spot. Contrary to the belief that all sociopaths look like the Yorkshire Ripper, they do in fact, look just like you and me. They will charm you on first introduction and the majority of people will be blinded by their manipulation. But these people are cold. Maybe they are rapists, or domestic abusers. Maybe they are not violet at all but will think nothing of scamming or stealing from you. Unfortunately, the majority of people find out when it’s too late. Sociopaths are excellent at spotting your vulnerability and will use it against you to get what they want, using every trick in the book to succeed. But sociopaths are very jealous people and if you dare disagree or go against one then watch out; they will happily bring down upon you a reign of misery.

The only way to deal with a sociopath is to dissolve all contact and remove them from your life. Do not try to argue with them, or attempt to out smart them. Remember, they are sociopaths and do not ‘feel’ like the other 95% of the population. You have to protect yourself and you are not doing this if your time is consumed with making them pay.

Protect yourself and live your life. As Dr Martha Stout says, “Living well is the best revenge.”

So, now I will ask…..Do you know a sociopath?

For more on this I recommend reading ‘The Sociopath Next Door’ by Clinical psychologist Dr Martha Stout, Ph.D.

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I thought it would be fun to see if it was possible to write a story in no more than six sentences. This is what I come up with…

The Wrong Path :

He stood at the crossroads at the tender age of seventeen where, as predicted, he had received his first criminal record. He could have walked to the left and stayed on its disastrous path, ending up just another statistical drain on today’s society. But he chose the path to the right, working hard to reclaim his dignity and self respect. He cherished this path, gaining a rewarding job, loving girlfriend and loyal friends. He awoke on the day of his 22nd birthday not knowing that today he would be honoured a hero. Today he would rescue the life of a young child from a burning building, sacrificing his own life in the process.

NOW, it’s your turn. I want to read your 6 sentence stories. Good luck!

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It’s true, I admit it. I have a bit of an overactive imagination, or as Kristen Lamb says ‘you could write for Days of our Lives’. But where does all our imagination and inspiration come from? How does one invent characters and stories that merit the time spent putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard?

Sure, like every other author and writer looking for inspiration, I scan newspaper headlines and read magazine articles. I am guilty of using, on occasion, subway advertising, music videos, lyrics’ in songs and scenes in already made movies. I am forever jotting down notes and ideas in the little note pad I carry with me wherever I go. Doesn’t every writer?

But have you ever just watched people? I mean really, really watched them? No matter where you are, the reality is there will always be people around you. Train stations, airports, supermarkets, waiting in line for Disney’s Space Mountain, the toilet (yeah, you know who you are). People are fascinating. The way they act or what they say to each other. The tattoos they support or the jewellery they wear. Are they louder than a tornado warning or quieter than the annoying mouse you know is under the floorboards but refuses to come out until everyone is asleep? Everything about them screams out character: your character if you apply just a little imagination.

I was recently travelling home from London when a guy boarded the train and sat down opposite me. He was, I assumed, a tramp. The underneath of his nails were dirty, and I mean black dirty, his shoes were worn through and his clothes stained and crumbled. His face was covered by greasy hair and an overgrown beard, but his eyes were the bluest eyes I had ever seen in my life. I was mesmerised. I could not look away. Take all the griminess away, give him a good shower and I imagined he would have been absolutely gorgeous. We are talking Richard Armitage gorgeous. He had everything going for him. He was well over six foot, good build from what I could tell beneath his clothes and it got me to thinking….who was this guy? What had happened in his life for him to be sitting in a train carriage on the central line, looking the way he did? Could he have a family, a wife, or any children? Had he previously worked and if so, in what profession? Did he choose to live his life like this or was it beyond his control? Had someone close to him died and, in his distraught state, had not noticed his life draining away until it was too late……or, at the other end of the spectrum, was he undercover and working for MI5 or 6? If trouble broke out would he suddenly turn into James Bond and save the day? Or was he a secret millionaire, fed up with money hungry women and actually looking for the love of his life, who would love him for him and not the money he had in his bank account.

The latter ideas, probably not, but hey, in imagination land anything is possible, isn’t it?

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