Jilly: Try Before You Buy

Do you sample a book before you buy it?

Not so much in-person bookshop browsing, because right now that’s off the menu for most of us. But reading an excerpt on an author’s website, or using the Look Inside feature on the world’s most powerful online bookstore.

How often do you think reading a sample persuades you to buy a book, or makes you decide to move on to something else? I never used to bother with it, but a few years ago, after a particularly long series of dud purchases, I gave it a go. Now I’d never buy without trying.

I was thinking about samples this morning, after I discovered a brand-new reason not to buy. I saw a strongly positive review of a new-to-me author on a site I follow. The cover was great, and I loved the premise. The story sounded smart, original, quirky, just what I was looking for. So I headed over to the Zon and checked out the sample.

Have you ever tried food or drink that was delicious on the first mouthful, tasty on the second, fairly nice on the third, but by the fourth or fifth you never wanted another bite and a sixth would have made you gag? It was like that.

The story was told in first person, through the eyes of a smart, potty-mouthed, strongly opinionated character. The inciting incident was impactful and well told. The writing was super-strong. It was just too voice-y for me. If they’d cut off the sample at the end of the first page, I probably would have bought the book. By the end of the third page, I was done. I didn’t even read to the end of the sample or check out the reviews.

After thinking about it for a while, I decided it was a great Look Inside, because I bet the right reader would have devoured that sample and probably gone on to love the book. And the story promise was strong and clear enough for me to discover that I wasn’t that reader.

Do you read samples?

Have you gone on to buy (or not buy) based on what you read? Can you remember why?

Michaeline: Rain Meditation Number Two

It’s been another week in the time of Corona, and let me pay my brief respects to US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died September 18, 2020, of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, according to National Public Radio. She was an icon for many, and is known for working through three broken ribs, gallbladder treatment and cancer during the last two years. An amazing woman, an amazing fighter, and an American heroine and role-model.

I can feel the grief from over here. People on Twitter barely could speak of her death and the causes, and my timeline was littered with cryptic profanity and little anecdotes of short and supreme sweetness. The Americans often did not say her name; they assumed we all knew. Rest in power, rest in peace, RBG.

People elsewhere in the world are also having a rough week, so I’m going to show another Rain Meditation from our farm in Japan. This was taken Friday morning. One of the five stray cats shows up in the beginning. Don’t get invested – Tabby leaves around the 10-second mark. There’s nothing to do, nothing to think. Just take care of yourself and breathe for one short minute, then go out and be kind to one another. What are you grateful for this week? Please leave some gratitude in the comments.

Elizabeth: Friday Writing Sprints

Happy Friday or, according to my Calendar of Days, happy Cheeseburger Day.  Yesterday was National Monty Cristo Day–one of my favorite sandwiches.  Had I only known, I’d have rustled one up, though my BLT made with applewood smoked bacon and heirloom tomatoes was an excellent substitute.

I often wonder where all of the “National Day of . . .” ideas come from and why some days seem to be overflowing with things to celebrate while others have very little.  Friday also appears to be Hug Your Boss Day, which is hardly likely to be popular in the midst of the pandemic.  Saturday is the popular Talk Like A Pirate Day.  The local doughnut shop normally offers a free doughnut to anyone who orders in pirate-speak that day, but I’m guessing not this year when it has been such a challenge to just stay in business.

My week has been full of meetings–I’ve got to stop giving people my phone number/email address–and virtual conferences.  The most recent conference was so tedious I had to keep getting up and jogging in place to avoid dozing off.  Fortunately I did not have my camera turned on for that.  It’s amazing how many conference sessions and meetings could be much more effectively replaced with a good PowerPoint deck or a brief email.  Ah well, at least I only had to attend the conference, not organize it.

It is now evening here and I’m currently typing this post from my living room where I can see a family of raccoons out on my back deck.  There is a water bowl out there that had been the cat’s and the raccoons are alternately drinking from it and standing in it; knocking each other out of the way and acting like they are auditioning for a TV wrestling show.  They look like happy, fluffy bandits and when I make meowing sounds, they come up to the door and look in quizzically.  Very cute.  Judging from all of the thumping I hear late at night, they appear to be living under my back deck, as is a family of possums.  It’s a regular wild-animal kingdom around here.

I’m looking forward to a Zoom-free weekend with, fingers crossed, clear air and blue skies.  I have nothing planned other than kicking things off with today’s writing prompt and random words.

Care to join me?

For those of you working away on a story (whether a first draft or a polished version on its way to publication), if you’re not feeling random, we’d love to hear a bit – whether it’s a scene, a paragraph, or even a phrase that you are especially pleased with and would like to share.

If you don’t have a story in progress, or just want to work on something new, I hope either today’s random words or writing prompt will catch your creative fancy.

Ready?

What if: “Your character is planning a surprise party?

Feel free to interpret the “What” any way you choose (or ignore it completely) and include any (or all) of the following random words:

energy              daughter        fetish            believe

prefab              bronze             box              gargoyle

harmony          drunken          terrific          affordable

rival                  ocean              hat                warrior

I look forward to seeing your stories in the comments.  If you’re not feeling in the writing mood today, or don’t have time, feel free to post suggestions you might have for future “what-if” prompts.  Ideas are always welcome.

Happy writing to all!

Michille: Reasons for a Scene

After reading Elizabeth’s post from yesterday, I decided to set a goal for the next week to get a couple scenes written. Any scene. I’ve been watching Virgin River on Netflix. Maybe I’ll try to come up with a powerful scene that could happen between some of those characters. A bit of fan fiction, if you will. By powerful, I mean scenes with multiple purposes in the story (which Virgin River has). As we have discussed here many times, every scene is a unit of conflict. I want to write scenes that go beyond a unit of conflict.

Debra Dixon, in Goal, Motivation & Conflict, suggests that there should be at least three reasons for every scene and at least one of those must address a characters goal, motivation or conflict. Dwight Swain talks about scenes and sequels with the sequel consisting of reaction, dilemma, and decision. Other purposes I’ve come across are to establish atmosphere, develop pathos, or create suspense. I’m hoping that by combining reasons for a scene, I can eliminate backstory, narrative summary and other ‘reasons’ that drag a story down.

But maybe I should say, restrict backstory, narrative summary, etc. Because stories need backstory. They don’t need big narrative passages that dump it all on the reader (especially in a series when the author does a soap opera style “as you know” rehash). I recently re-read Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series. I shouldn’t because I want to watch the series and I know it will be so different from the books that I’ll be yelling at the TV the whole time – prime example: they changed a twenty-ish gossip rag writer to an octagenarian. Sheesh. But I digress. There is a scene in An Offer From a Gentleman that is repeated in Romancing Mr. Bridgerton. In the first story, it is in Benedict’s head (as I recall). In the second, it’s in Penelope’s. I suppose it’s more of a prologue scene in the second book, but it happens before the real story starts – therefore backstory. It’s a good scene, but since I read the preceding story, I didn’t need a rehash – just a few lines would have done it woven into another scene. Of course, since Julia Quinn makes a lot more money writing romance than I do, she can’t be doing too many things wrong.

Conflict is a given. In trying to apply the three reasons to my scenes, I will need to identify some of the reasons for the scenes that are in addition to the main conflict. Some could introduce new characters, increase sexual tension, build or break down trust, expose backstory, or foreshadow a future event.

What reasons do you have for your scenes? How many have you been able to include in a single scene?

Elizabeth: Dreaming of Stories

A few days ago I woke up with a story in my head.  Well, the idea for one at least.

That may not seem like a very surprising thing–especially for a writer–but for me, it felt like a major victory.

As may have been evident from my inability to even generate anything that I’d be willing to post on our Friday Writing Sprints, I have been in a bit of a creativity dead zone.  Well, maybe more of a creativity black-hole or maybe a giant creativity void.  Whatever it was, it seriously impacted my storytelling abilities.

I blame the pandemic.

And work.

But then Sunday morning, somewhere between asleep and awake, the remainder of a dream fluttered around in my head.  I discarded the actual person who had featured in the dream and thought up a new character to fill the role.  Then I thought of a hook that could turn the dream snippet into a real story.

Then I started to think I might really have something. Continue reading

Jeanne: Satan’s Daycare

I’m currently working on the section of The Demon Wore Stilettos where our protagonist (I’m not even going to try to get anyone on board with thinking of Lilith as a heroine at this point) has discovered that she’s pregnant. It’s what she’s always wanted, but now she’s faced with figuring out how she, a single demon whose job requires extensive travel, can raise a child on her own.

As she comes to terms with this reality, she visits Hell’s daycare center, where things are just as topsy-turvy as they are everywhere else in the underworld. I had some initial ideas about what such a nursery would look like–kids running with scissors, kids playing with matches–but I wanted a broader range of ideas, so I put out a call for suggestions in my September newsletter.

(Don’t get my newsletter, but you’d love to, along with a free short story just for signing up? Click here)

I won’t be able to use all of the great ideas people submitted, but they made me laugh, so I’ll share them with you:

  • Projectile vomiting–complete with 180 degree head turns.
  • Running around on the ceiling
  • Playing mean pranks on the teachers
  • Biting
  • Playing with cleaning solutions and chemicals
  • Clogging toilets
  • Sniffing glue
  • Cutting each other’s hair
  • Watching porn 
  • Stealing the teacher’s wallet
  • Cursing 
  • Putting goo on things
  • Grabbing toys from each other and banging each other over the head with them
  • TV on 24 x 7
  • Junk food and caffeine all day
  • Peanuts everywhere
  • Classes in bullying, lying, stealing and manipulation

Some of these ideas remind me of early Dennis the Menace cartoons, back when they were a lot edgier than the sanitized version that made it to the big and little screens. (I remember a D the M cartoon where Dennis has placed matches between the bare toes of his sleeping father and, with a grin of pure devilment on this face, is about to light the first match.)

Or Charles Addams cartoons like this one.

Do you have any other ideas you’d like to throw out?

Jilly: Snippet

A couple of weeks ago I decided to write a new Elan Intrigues prequel novella as a giveaway for my newsletter subscribers. I’ve been in my writing cave ever since.

The Pulse of Princes will be 15-18,000 words, about the early life of recurring character Prince Daire of Caldermor. In this story he’s aged 19. His father is dying and Daire is likely to inherit the throne soon. It’s the first time he seriously butts heads with his domineering mother, the indefatigable Princess Irmine.

Here’s a snippet from the encounter that triggers Daire’s rebellion.

 

Request Denied

“This should prove an interesting test.” Daire’s mother folded the note and slid it back into her pocket. When she withdrew her hand, she was holding a small pouch. She bounced it in her palm, and even through the heavy padding Daire heard the familiar jingling sound. Elan. He made it every month, albeit in small quantities. He’d never kept a single pulse for himself.

The crown princess opened the pouch and drew out a single hard-shelled, bean-shaped nugget. She held it reverently between her finger and thumb, tilting it so that it shone pure gold in the morning light. He wasn’t close enough to catch the scent, but his mind supplied it: sweeter than the most delicious fruit pastry, richer and more complex than the finest tree-sap. He’d been making elan since he was ten years old, and the smell of it still made his mouth water.

A low wooden rail guarded the edge of the terrace. Inside the rail a narrow shelf offered enough space to place a pair of gloves or a cup of cordial. Princess Irmine dipped her hand into the bag and placed twelve pulses of elan on the shelf, one by one, spaced a handspan apart.

She stepped back, assessed her handiwork, and nodded in satisfaction. His mother never did anything without reason. What on the gods’ fair earth was she doing now?

She lifted a hand and waved toward the garden gate where Captain Bale waited, in her line of sight but out of earshot. He snapped a salute, opened the gate, and ushered in three servants in Edevald livery.

The first, a cleanshaven, skinny young fellow, Daire recognized vaguely as one of the clerks from the treasury. The boy looked bug-eyed and scared out of his wits. The second was a middle-aged woman he’d last seen in the kitchen, making apple pies. She’d smiled at him then. Now she looked as though she’d found weevils in the flour. The third was the couriers’ hostler, Sharp, who looked like his usual shifty self.

Prompted by Bale they lined up before the terrace and each made their obeisance.

“Ask them anything,” his mother encompassed the three with a wave of her hand. “Their work, debts, spouses, children. Whatever you need to know in order to decide.”

“Decide?” The sweet pastry Daire had devoured earlier roiled in his gut.

His mother shrugged. “Which one I should dismiss.”

She clearly expected him to ask, so he chose the line of least resistance. “Why must you dismiss any of them, ma’am? And why must I choose?”

“If I am to meet your request I need to find a saving elsewhere. The quickest and simplest way is by culling a hireling or two.” She glanced at the line of elan beans, glimmering on the shelf, and her lips tightened. “For a dozen pulses it should be all of them, and more, but as this is an unfamiliar challenge for you I decided to make it easy.”

Daire made himself look the servants in the eye. The boy was trembling so hard he could barely stand upright. The kitchen maid crossed her arms and stared back at him. She looked furious. Sharp met Daire’s gaze briefly, then fixed his eyes on Princess Irmine.

“No questions?” The crown princess held out her hand to Daire. On her palm sat the empty elan pouch. “Choose one servant, and you may take the pulses with you.”

Daire put his hands behind his back. “No.”

“No?” Princess Irmine asked softly.

“No.” He didn’t shout, but his confirmation was louder and more forceful than was proper.

“Very well.” His mother nodded to Bale. “They can go.”

Sharp bolted down the path and disappeared. The kitchen maid put her arm around the clerk. Bale followed the sorry pair as they left. He closed the gate behind them and stood at attention.

“Well?”

“You knew I wouldn’t choose.” Daire gripped his hands together behind his back, so tightly he thought his bones might crack.

“I thought you wouldn’t,” Princess Irmine corrected. “Now I know.”

“You terrified those servants to teach me a lesson.”

“It made a lasting impression, did it not?” His mother waited a beat, daring him to deny her assertion. “Simply explaining the problem would not have worked half so well.”

***

Whoo! I hope you enjoyed that.

Of course Daire knows he can’t allow Princess Irmine to get the better of him, or he’ll be under her thumb before he even inherits the throne. I’m having fun writing his counter-offensive 🙂 .

Have a lovely weekend, and I’ll see you next Sunday.

Michaeline: Meditation on Japanese Rain with Cat

It’s been a rough and rocky week — not so much for me personally, but for the people around me, and in the news, and on social media. So, here’s a nice one-minute video of cool, soothing rain on a Japanese farm . . . with guest voice cameo by Greebo, the cat.

Rain on a Japanese farm — a meditation. With Greebo doing a voiceover at the 0:17 mark. Only one minute of peaceful rain — enough to calm your mind and let ideas float to the top. (E.M. Duskova) Flowers: Blue salvia, red salvia, dusty miller. Begonias near the greenhouse in the background. Bees keep flitting, even through the pouring rain.

short-haired chonky black cat stretched out under a yew tree. Grape leaves and scented phlox are in the foreground. He's glaring at the camera.

Greebo, during sunnier days. (E.M. Duskova)

Greebo is a Grumpy-cat mix. He’s mostly black with a few orange markings that look like battle scars from a former life. He isn’t afraid of people, but he has no use for them unless they come bearing saucers of milk. (I know this because Auntie gives him a dish of scalded milk every morning, and he’ll let her pet him. Everyone else, he hisses at, then stalks away. Not runs. Stalks, with great dignity and he’s so affronted that you dared to approach him without a tribute for the conqueror.)

They say there are only two stories in the world: someone leaves home, or a stranger comes to town. I wonder what would happen if Greebo, anthropomorphized, showed up in my fictional town . . . .

Elizabeth: Friday Writing Sprints

Did anyone happen to see four horsemen head past this way?  Just wondering since, as Kay mentioned yesterday, the skies here in beautiful California have taken on quite the Apocalyptic coloring.

At least it’s not blisteringly hot to boot.  A quick check of my thermometer shows that there has been a twenty degree temperature drop in the past two days.  If this was a competition though, beautiful Colorado would be the winner.  They had both record heat and then record snow, all within 48 hours.  That’s just crazy!

Nature is either going through a cranky phase or trying to get our attention.  I hope things calm down soon.  Nothing like breathing smokey air for a while to make you appreciate clear fresh skies.  Fortunately, other than air you can see and a fine dusting of ash all over the yard, everyone is fine here.  I can’t imagine how horrible it has been for those in the path of the flames.

Fortunately I was able to plant the flowering shrubs, which had been languishing in my kitchen sink, into the backyard the other day during a very brief patch of clear.  I didn’t do the best of jobs, but the plants are still alive, so I’m going to call it a win.  As long as the assorted wildlife that have been digging holes in my lawn and tunneling under my fence leave the plants alone, I’ll be able look forward to some pretty flowers in a few months.

With nothing left to plant (thank goodness) and no plans to actually leave the house for the next few days, I’ll have plenty of time to tackle some of those projects I’ve been meaning to get to for, well, quite some time.  The mending pile has been giving me the evil eye for weeks, so maybe I’ll start there.  Before wading into that delightful task, I think I’ll give today’s writing prompt and random words at shot.

Care to join me?

For those of you working away on a story (whether a first draft or a polished version on its way to publication), if you’re not feeling random, we’d love to hear a bit – whether it’s a scene, a paragraph, or even a phrase that you are especially pleased with and would like to share.

If you don’t have a story in progress, or just want to work on something new, I hope either today’s random words or writing prompt will catch your creative fancy.

Ready?

What if: “Your character is planning an escape?

Feel free to interpret the “What” any way you choose (or ignore it completely) and include any (or all) of the following random words:

phantom           clean              annual           damage

buffer               diamond        exchange       escape

cannon             passenger       seed               harmony

trust                 grey                sweat              lottery

I look forward to seeing your stories in the comments.  If you’re not feeling in the writing mood today, or don’t have time, feel free to post suggestions you might have for future “what-if” prompts.  Ideas are always welcome.

Happy writing to all!

Kay: What Next?

The view from my living room window, 10am, Sept. 9, 2020.

A friend gave me a $50 gift card to Amazon for my birthday a few weeks ago, and today, while we in California’s Bay Area are living with skies that look like the apocalypse, I spent it on ebooks.

I was frightened when I woke up this morning to dark red skies—fires are all around us but haven’t been of immediate danger. However, when I first moved to California, a big fire erupted just a mile or two behind my house and burned through more than 3,000 homes and killed 27 people. Most of my street evacuated voluntarily at that time, but I had faith in the fire department and the hydrant at the end of my block. My faith was rewarded, too: the fire came no closer than about three-quarters of a mile. Continue reading