Monthly Archives: July 2009

Characters That Develop Writers

I know I’ve read a hundred articles, blogs and comments about how writers create characters for their books, but it’s Friday and my mind has been rolled over gravel this week. I simply don’t see things like normal people. Granted, it might have nothing to do with a challenging seven days, it might be the norm for me, but for this particular experiment, let’s just pretend it’s unusual. 

Let me start with a few questions. First, have you ever really created a character? I mean seriously? From head to toe, heart to flesh? Or, have you gotten so far and the character goes into rebellion and insists he or she is something else. I envisioned Michael Becker, the main character in Blind in the Light, to be a smallish man with thinning hair. He said no. Later, in the second book, Carrying Heaven (unfinished), I wrote that he lost his right leg. Michael said oh hell no, it was his left leg and no matter how many times I read through it and correct it, I keep typing “left”. 

What does this tell me about Michael Becker? And more importantly, (for those of you in the psychiatric biz) what does this tell me about me? 

At any given time I, like every other writer I know, have more than fifteen unique and different characters inside my head. They come from various eras and various genres. Some are human, some are superhuman, some are supernatural. Many are affected by paranormal activities and/or awareness. Alicia (The Magnolia Men’s Club) is an unenthusiastic time traveler who started today and ended up in a 1905 erotic, Victorian male dominated world. Crudo Cushman (Cold in California) is a dead troll earning his pass through the pearly gates by managing a West Hollywood holding tank for other dead supernatural creatures. Luc and Gabe (Sympathy for the Devil) are slipping the bonds of time and dimension and exploring their influence on the history of American through our national pastime, Baseball. And by the way, Gabe is the Angel Gabriel and Luc is … yes … Lucifer himself. 

There are more. Characters, characters shouting and jostling each other inside my brain. Miribella Patients see auras. Don Carson is a soul eater. Angela Menendez is a spiritual healer. More and more of them keep coming too, shouting for my attention and telling me what they are, what they can do and what they look like. As the author, the only control I have is deciding which story they’ll be part of, and even with that, they all have their own idea as to how to react to the stimuli around them. It’s like running a nursery sometimes, I swear! 

Now for the big question … and you have to tell me truthfully. We all have a plot plan, we all know where we want our story to go. Cross your heart and hope to slip on a crack that breaks your protagonist’s back … tell the truth. Do you really control the plan? The outline? The strategic plot? Or, like me, do you start with a sound plan and discover that your characters have another idea all together? Ideas that strangely … always … improve the scene, plot or novel as a whole? Are we really the conductor of the symphony in our head? Are we the storytellers, or the typists?


Swallowing it Whole

What do you do when you know too much? No, I’m not talking about being the absolute expert at everything. Lord knows, most of us (especially me), are far from that. What I’m talking about is when your life skills, experiences and knowledge fill a big bag of eclectic mish mash, the contents of which very seldom, if ever, interconnect. Life’s junk drawer. 

I have a professional photographer friend who is also a builder and a champion fisherman. Another acquaintance is a math teacher, a tile dancer and expert volunteer. I once knew a woman who made clothes by day and stripped by night. Skills. Every single part of these people was an amazing skill and it made them all rather unique as individuals. The magic is in how they mesh all those abilities into one existence. Today I came across a woman who offered several different services within very similar industries; some as a staff executive, others as a free lance expert. She manages to stand on several different levels of a common need. Nothing conflicts but everything works. Genius. Absolute genius. 

I try that too. I’m doing my best to combine as many of my acquired skills under one heading … writer. Having written for the advertising, marketing and public relations world for so long, I was always working on some novel or another behind the scenes. Understanding the ins and outs of publicity, I’m doing everything I know to make my work visible. But, there was a challenge missing. 

When I became a chef, I thought it was such a drastic ninety degree shift I’d never connect things again. It was fun, it’s was massively creative, competitive and challenging and oh hell yeah, I loved every minute of it. But as this chef grew older, those three gallon stock pots got heavier and heavier. I knew it was time to return to the keyboard. 

So, how can I stitch my two loves together? And … how could I do it to create additional excitement for my Cold in California, vampire urban fantasy series? 

After a suggestion from a new acquaintance, it hit me like a salami to the head. A cookbook. But not just a cookbook, a Vampire Cookbook. 

Now things really have begun to weld together. My learned skills of research and development from the old marketing days stood at attention and things started to pop. Did I want to write a blood cookbook? After all, the only two vampire cookbooks I could find were either a joke book or a book using blood as the major ingredient for all recipes. Ew. 

See, I really wanted to write a cookbook for people who eat food, not suck blood. It seemed hopeless, but then I recalled some terminology that caught my interest before and now has me jumping for joy. Did you know there are Psychic Vampires? There are Emotional Vampires too. Now add to that the Husband Vampire, the Nosey Neighbor Vampire and the Cranky Sister-in-Law Vampire and now we’re cooking. 

The cookbook took on a form and life of its own. The narrative covers how these people, although loved and cherished, can suck the life right out of us. It follows the same tongue-in-cheek style of writing as Cold in California, and like that urban fantasy series, the cookbooks also with have a series. Kid Vampire cookbooks that will benefit children’s charities; one for College Student Vampires who need a little guidance in the food choosing, preparation and quality area; Bachelor Vampires who want to impress and get some. Yes, this could be a lot of fun! 

Who knows anything about writing a non-fiction proposal? Trust me; it’s a long, laborious, time consuming and utterly satisfying process. It’s like writing a business plan for your new, soon-to-be dynasty. I’ve got something here, I just know it. Aside from the duo-publicity potential between the Cold in California series and this cookbook series, I’m actually going to have a great cookbook with my own award winning recipes and a lot of playful narrative to soothe the savage writer within. Next: promotional plans, live demonstrations and tastings. Could life get any better? 

Now, you. Your turn. It’s a challenge and I’d love to hear what you come up with. Take all those separate, unique skills and abilities of yours and find a way to knit them together. Who knows, you may just create a product, writing genre or service no one ever thought of before. It’s what we writers do, right? 

We create!


Write-by-Numbers: The Literary Masterpiece

Does anyone remember the paint-by-numbers kits? I’m not sure they even make them anymore but how cool was that? A person with little to no artistic talent could suddenly recreate the Mona Lisa; all you had to do was pay attention to the numbers and stay in the lines. I admit I preferred to smear the lines. Things that look too crisp and neat always bugged me. 

Numbers are my personal nemesis. Clean columns of numbers in a checkbook, figures in an employment contract, commission percentages … enough to make this brain explode. Now that my entire life is focused on writing and doing promotional projects, damn if it isn’t numbers again at the crux of everything. 

Admittedly, it all started in the 70’s and 80’s when I was in the PR and advertising biz. Numbers reared their ugly heads but I told myself not to be afraid, after all, they weren’t big numbers. For example, a 30 second radio or television commercial is 75 words. A 60 second spot, 150 words. No smearing across the lines allowed. Within those tight parameters, the copy has to mention the advertiser’s name no less than three times and the location or phone number at least twice. Oh, and if you’re partial to alliteration, you’re sure to make enemies among the local talent producing the ads. 

Press releases are also very restricted. They not only MUST be news, but they too require word limits. If you’re lucky, a sound bite could be created from your press release; so it behooves the publicist to obey the same rules that format radio and television ads in the word count department. News print also likes clean, concise, newsworthy press releases and often will publish a release verbatim. What a coup! And if you really wrote the thing well, you get a call for a full interview. You’re off to the races and giving good PR. 

One day in the early 90’s I burned out and headed into the culinary world. Numbers, numbers, numbers! Weights, measures and metric conversions gave me nightmares. But like everything else, I let my soul override the terror and did just dandy, although this chef would never survive in a pastry shop. Baking is chemistry and you really can’t smear across any lines there or your bread won’t rise, your cookies won’t hold together and your crème brule will break. (It’s okay; there are enough pastry chefs in my family that I’ll never have to bake as long as I live.) After culinary school came the practical requirements of the industry; food cost evaluation has less to do with food than you think, planning and purchasing for large parties and effective menu design … yup, it’s all hinged on numbers. 

Thankfully, blessedly, now I’m a writer and only a writer. Yes I write press releases and articles but mostly I write my own work. So what do you think comes back to haunt me? Numbers. 

Lucky for us all, technology comes into play. If I had to multiply 250 words per double-spaced page I’d be a mess. Just click on “tools” and let Microsoft Word do the work. But there is more. Correct word count is defined by your product and your genre. Short story – up to 7,500 words. Novella – 17,000 to 40,000 words. Novel – 40,000 words and up. But oh no, it doesn’t stop there. Is your novel a romance or a historical fiction? A non-fiction or a memoir? Is your audience adult, young adult or children? A fiction query must be no more than one page and be sent out after the book is written … a non-fiction proposal must be 90 pages and presented before the book is written. 

Everything requires deeper research and attention to detail on our part as writers. Getting things right is super important. You researched your subject, researched your location and researched your character motivation. Be sure to research the appropriate word count for your manuscript. Being rejected because your romance comes in at a 198,000 words can really hurt, especially since the rejector seldom tells the rejectee that’s the reason. 

Writers and numbers will always face off. Some writers join crazy clubs and groups to challenge the number of words they’ll write within a given time period, others fall into the twitter universe and make profound statements with 140 characters. Whatever we do, word count is part and parcel of our final product. 

It’s all about paying our dues … learning the lay of the land … being aware. Writers are the last bastion of pure creativity thriving within the limitations of math. How well we do ultimately determines our success. After all, there’s a big difference between the real Mona Lisa and that one I did with my handy-dandy paint-by-number kit so long ago.


What’s Really in that Warehouse?

Okay, don’t mean to be creeping you out or anything, but my house is haunted. Yes. Really. So was the house before it and the one before that. I see things and often hear voices. Items mysteriously move from place to place and I swear at times the ghosts are playing with me. And THAT’S not the creepy part. 

See, this kind of thing doesn’t bother me. All my life these spirits/angels/ghosts/apparitions, what ever you want to call them, have been hanging around. You might say I’m never really lonely, huh? This doesn’t bother me at all and as a writer, I’d be negligent if I didn’t give my ‘friends’ some credit for the ideas that grow and form from spook-induced experiences. Strange, magnificent plot and character development solutions have come to me through dreams or visions or just plain mysterious words whispered into my ear. Honest, I’m not that weird. Not crazy. Not certifiable. It’s just how life is. The life of a writer. It’s a unique place, being a writer. The world always looks a little different to us than it does to anyone else. I’m betting that whether you’re willing to admit it or not, you travel with a few high energy creative spirits too. 

Take the creation of Cold in California (http://deborahriley-magnus.com/CIC/ColdinCAMain.html). This idea came to me like a bolt of lightening and the entire bizarre universe formed before my very eyes. Dead supernaturals; werewolves, trolls, pixies, fairies and shape-shifters joined together with twice-baked vampires to live out purgatory in a West Hollywood warehouse. Cool huh? And oh so much fun to write. The goal of every character is to find salvation of some kind; in the hero, dead vampire Gabriel’s case … to earn heaven. 

Now comes the creepy part. Of course, I drove around Los Angeles, checking out neighborhoods and warehouses to cast one of the most interesting characters in the book, the Holding Tank itself. The warehouse I chose as my inspiration was perfect. Empty. Spooky. Filled with possibilities. I could just hear Crudo (the troll in charge), his booming voice directing the dead inmates to build private rooms, separate off his office, put in a kitchen and keep it clean. I could almost see the supernatural creatures who seldom leave, (Mumbu the South African voodoo-loving dead fairy; Stick Man, the native American twelve-foot tall legend; and the pack of grinning gnomes that remind Gabriel of the Seven Dwarves minus Grumpy) roaming around the cavernous space, watching Soaps and discussing old times. 

It was fun and served well, but since the West Hollywood warehouse met its demise at the end of Cold in California, I was off again to search a replacement Holding Tank for the second book, Monkey Jump.  This is where the practical process went way past imaginative entertainment and crossed into something a little bit … extraordinary. I started to see strange and wondrous things and now I can’t shake a curiosity. 

Rather than tell you, I’m going to challenge you. Do me a favor, all you writers out there. Take a drive around your town, slow down when you see that warehouse at the end of the street, the one you pass everyday on your way to work, or the deserted one up on the hill. Close your eyes and feel it. 

Am I really nuts, or do you suspect there’s a dead supernatural Holding Tank in your neighborhood too? Doesn’t that guy you see on the train look a little like a troll? Could that tall woman be an elf? Maybe those kids aren’t really kids playing in the park, maybe they’re gnomes getting a little fresh air and exercise. And … wasn’t that big white dog a man last time you looked? 

Do you suspect there’s a Holding Tank in your neighborhood? Let me know because I swear there’s one in Rancho Dominguez, just off the 405 northbound exit.


What Marketing Taught Me: The playground is getting rougher

When you come to a certain point in your life, whether it’s a chronological age, reaching a financial/marital/parental goal or you just plain hit a wall, I suppose it’s normal to take a sentimental journey backward to discover the important pivotal moments that brought you there. 

At my golden age, I’m never sure if I should be proud of all the accomplishments or embarrassed at the wealth of experiences. I’ve been a musician, a graphic designer and business owner; a public relations specialist, print, radio and television advertising writer and a creative problem solver. Then I got burned out so I jumped into the fire … the kitchen … and became a chef at forty-four. Since then I’ve cooked and created and sold everything from Idaho potatoes to imported Italian meats to giandujas. I’ve traversed spirituality from the pews of the Catholic Church to the humble Lakota sweat lodge. Through it all I wrote and wrote and wrote. 

What have I learned? Lots. 

And oddly, it all connects. 

For nearly 27 years I worked in the advertising, marketing and public relations industry. I developed my career in a town known for steel mills and Permanti Bros. sandwiches. Trust me, we weren’t selling the sizzle. Nothing had glitz or glamour but to be successful in that market you had to somehow make the very mundane seem sexy. Amazing the skills a person can acquire under such circumstances. 

It all served me well, but when I dragged my aging behind into culinary school I thought the past was past, never to return again. Nope. Nada. Wrong. To get into the school, I had to sell myself. To get through the courses, I had to test ideas and stretch creativity. I had to compete for burner space, chef educator attention and medals. I had to study not only knife cuts and the ingredients of the classic mother sauces; I had to constantly invent ways to make those sauces unique. 

Now, I’m a retired chef spending all her time writing and guess what. The mother sauce dilemma continues. It was always there, it just vacillates according to the direction you’re looking and the goal you’re reaching for. 

Marketing prevails. Every moment of our lives requires this skill. Convincing the bus driver to stop as you run for it or talking the bank into dropping a bounced check fee, yup, that’s marketing. It’s positioning. It’s promoting and the product is YOU. 

As a writer, every marketing skill I used over all those years, honed through variations in two careers and perfected as a way of life is even more important. Here’s what I know, guys and gals. 

1)      Don’t think for a single moment that you are the one author who will not need to market and promote yourself. It’s an illusion based on fear. Toss the scary promotional demons aside and just do what you did when you wrote your book. Tell your story … everywhere.

2)      If you are painfully shy and terrified of facing the world outside your safe writing space, get online. Twitter. Facebook. Writing Communities. Join yahoo writer groups or better yet, create one. I totally understand your fears. I’m a bit of a recluse these days myself.

3)      Use social networking effectively. Take Twitter. It’s easy to fall into the ‘social’ part of social networking. Don’t follow movie stars or rock stars or professional athletes – unless they’re also writers. Carefully choose who you follow; other writers, authors, editors, publishers and agents. Follow their tweets and remember to offer something in return. Dan Brown really doesn’t care that you washed your walls today or had a chicken sandwich for lunch. Time is valuable, get the most value out of yours and remember to ‘network’.

4)      If you can get yourself dressed and into a pair of shoes, go to a writing club meeting. Every state, province and country has them. Google is your friend. These groups are all bursting with marketing speakers and tips. It is the buzz in the industry.

5)      If everything you learn and discover still seems too difficult, either hire a publicity consultant to help build your platform or make friends with someone who knows how to do it. We’re all on this rocking, rolling, suddenly reinventing-itself-publishing ocean. Problem solving (like creativity) is plagiarism with a flare.

6)      Take a deep breath, don’t be afraid. Launch your product … you. Without it your book may also be sitting at the computer, barefoot and feeling unpopular. 

Since I began focusing on these self-promotion requirements for writers, I’ve taken up my armor and started the charge. I’ve created specializes pages on my site featuring each book. I’ve created excitement about the characters in the book on those pages. I’ve begun this blog. I’ve created a platform to support my efforts by mixing my chef persona with my writer persona and developing a cookbook series to pair with my urban fantasy series. I’ve started doing cooking demo’s with my local writing groups to test the recipes and chat up my Cold in California series while I’m at it. I’ve continued to query like crazy, continue to ship out additional chapters to agents who ask. And I’m having a blast. 

Marketing has always been a flashy, tingly sort of splash at the world and the playground is getting rougher. It’s not easy but there’s no need to feel bullied. All we really need to do is tell our story, tell it with flare, and tell it EVERYWHERE.


Alter Egos Arise!

Inspiration comes from a thousand places. Before I moved to Los Angeles, I absolutely never watched television. I had no clue what “Lost” was about or why anyone would want to “Dance with the Stars”, but now that those Stars are my real-life neighbors, television has become my preferred evening entertainment choice. 

Back in lovely Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, sitting on my porch and watching the occasionally visible sunset was enough inspiration to write Blind in the Light, a spiritual novel about an empathic priest. Now, my inspirations come more often from the television screen than the readily available daily west coast setting sun. These days I’m inspired by shows I never used to watch. And those shows are often of the reality variety. 

I confess. I love The Biggest Loser, Project Runway and of course, Top Chef. I adore Make Me a Super Model, What Not to Wear and The Millionaire Match Maker. But the inspiration I want to talk about today came to me from my newest Monday evening entertainment; Oxygen’s Dance Your Ass Off.   

Last night unhealthy, overweight and committed-to-change contestants were charged with performing a pole dance of all things; sexy, sultry, suggestive pole dancing and for the most part, every one of them pulled it off. One guy did a strip tease with tear-away slacks to drive his point across. I’m always inspired by people pushing past their limits to improve, but last night it wasn’t simply the fact that each one stood on that stage and courageously made love to a pole … it was the mental tools they used to accomplish their goal that impressed me most. 

Pinky, a lovely Hispanic street dancer with a few pounds to lose, was in a position to fail should she not break free of her tough-gal image and become feminine and sexy. Pinky is my hero for the week because not only did she do the difficult dance beautifully … she did it by starting inside her mind. Pinky developed an alter ego, a hot mama who had none of Pinky’s issues with emoting the depth of come-get-it required at the pole. I cheered, one of the judges almost cried and Pinky managed to stay another week with her great performance and nice weight loss. 

That’s when I decided … I want an alter ego. I need an alter ego. I DEMAND an alter ego! 

We all know the power of suggestion, the strength of visualization and manifestation to reach our goals. Time to add imagination to that list and invent the perfect alter ego to set the standards. 

My alter ego will be miles ahead of me. She’ll have all the success already under her belt, she’ll already know what I’m learning and she’ll be living the dream I’m climbing toward. She’ll be savvy with that cool existence; unlike me who still finds the simple stuff baffling … like Los Angeles traffic and why a city with no weather needs television weathermen. Oh yes, my alter ego is cool! She lives in a house on Malibu beach (not far from the one I imagine Alexander Scarsgard owns), she’s finishing her next best seller and still riding the wave of media coverage from her last best seller. I really like her. She’s an alter ego I want to be friends with and she has no problem letting me into her circle to feel the energy of being her. 

Yes. Every struggling writer needs this kind of alter ego. What fun, like a built in, made to order role model! 

What’s your alter ego like?


The Origin of the Blog

Okay, it’s happened to all of us. Writers are especially susceptible to this particular curse. It seems the inmates have taken over the asylum! The following is a bit of information express-dreamed to me from one of my Cold in California characters after a late night glass (or four) of wine. Note to self: avoid discount supermarket wines from now on. 

According to Crudo Cushman, head demised troll in charge of the West Hollywood Supernatural Holding Tank, the word ‘blog’ comes from ancient troll culture. 

He informs me that a blog was a roughly hewn shirt upon which a troll would make markings, symbols that indicated his or her (of course there are female trolls, just look around you) position within troll society. During his troll life, Crudo had never risen beyond mucking mud, which was symbolized by a pig’s snout made with red mire found in a certain bog several miles outside his village. He’d dip the side of his clenched fist into the mud and press it firmly against his shirt. It didn’t look like a pig’s snout, but it was recognizable by all. The bog-marked blog stank to high heaven even after the mark dried. If it rained, he would need to remark himself. Where Crudo lived, it rained a lot. 

He says he envied the higher ranks, those whose blogs were etched with fine smears of brilliant green grass stains or careful figures drawn with bits of soft, colored stone, but Crudo came from a proud, long line of mud muckers and until his father passed, he wore the red snout, albeit with hidden embarrassment and hate. 

When Crudo met his demise six hundred years later, he came to the West Hollywood tank and has since done very well. He traded his rough, mud-stained blog for pressed white linen and bling and made it a point to never, ever get dirty again. The symbols on his shirt these days say: 

I’m in charge … I’m the boss … I’m watching you … and of course, Ralph Loren, blessedly stitched on the silk tag inside his collar. 

Be sure to watch the site http://deborahriley-magnus.com/CIC/ColdinCAMain.html for updates on character backgrounds, snippets that didn’t make the book, and tiny bits of info about the story!