Likeable Villains??

I just attended a great workshop taught by Carol Bugge entitled Villains, Heroes, and villainSidekicks–Crafting Characters that thrill readers (and SELL books). The workshop was put on by Sisters in Crime, New England.

I needed to learn more about villains and give them their proper place in my work. Not only do I leave their development until later, but, sometimes, I don’t figure out who they are until it’s absolutely necessary. I have one cozy set aside because I can’t decide who did it. But, I’m learning.

In order to write about a character, you have to know a little bit about them. Carol gave us some basic guidelines. Description. What does he or she look like? How do they conduct themselves–emotionally and intellectually? What is it about them (good and bad) that pulls the reader in? Do they have unique quirks? Write Better and More Despicable Villains

Naturally, we can’t provide the reader with everything we know about the villain. We can’t explain what made him the nasty, no-goodnik he is today. However, we can craft a character whose motivations and actions become clear on the page because WE know all about him–how he will act or react in a given situation. What will set him off? How can he live in our story world and not get caught?

greedMotives might be as simple as greed or as complicated as a traumatic life event that’s playing out again with our characters. Or, we could have an emotionless sociopath, an all-around good guy that everyone trusts. What drives him is important. It colors what he projects to others, what kind of crimes he’s willing to commit, and what he’ll do if cornered.

One thing to keep in mind while we build this character is that no one is all bad (or all good for that matter). There is always someone or something that gives our villain a bit of humanity. Maybe he loves his mother or small children. Perhaps he’s always trusted dogs because he had a faithful old mutt when he grew up. Maybe, as a reliable member of society, he’s in a position to be charitable, helping those less fortunate. Whatever it is, it should be something to make the reader feel a little sorry that the person had to be so bad.

I had a villain, good looking and well-liked in the community, who started out as a small-time crook and made enough money to re-invent himself. The new man used his money to fund charities and help out town government. Everybody wanted to be him or marry him. Of course his need for power never diminished and his crimes moved to the acceptable white collar variety. When he was forced to kill to keep his secrets, he rationalized that it was necessary because too many people would be hurt if his crimes were unearthed. What a guy!

As authors, we need to know everything we can about our bad guy or gal. One way to monologuedo that is to set up a sheet with pertinent questions. Character Questionnaire, Character Profiles

Some people like to interview their characters. One technique I like to use is writing a monologue from the villain’s point of view. I’ve found that seeing the crime through his eyes is always enlightening. Most villains love to rationalize. They’re certain that if you knew their story, you’d understand and sympathize.

Of course, you can’t put all that information in your book. But you can drop a few hints toward the finish. How many times have you gotten to the end of a story and learned a little about the villain’s background and said to yourself, “Oh, that’s why he’s like that.” Readers want to be able to look back in the book and say, “Oh yeah. I should have seen that.” They can’t wait to read the next book because they think they’ve figured out the author’s formula. Here are some villainous posts you might consider:  Villains People Love to Hate, Create Better Villains, 3 Techniques for Crafting Your Villain.

The more you know about your characters, the more human they become on the page, and the more interesting they become to readers. This workshop helped me realize that my villain has to be out in plain sight and posing as a normal human being. Perhaps he is an ordinary citizen until something triggers his rage or insanity. Once I figure out who he is and what he is like, I can have him interact with the other characters before fulfilling his dastardly destiny.

Have fun with your villains, and remember–Keep Writing.

Malice Domestic 27 Conference

Malice Domestic 27

As a fairly new mystery writer, I didn’t know about the various conferences held all over malice domesticthe country for authors of mysteries, thrillers, suspense, noir, or various other mystery genres. This spring I went to my first conference, Malice Domestic, which is a fan/author conference, usually taking place in Bethesda, Maryland, at the Hyatt Regency. Held May 1-3, it drew 600 writers and fans from all parts of the country and from abroad. I had a marvelous time and met many of my fellow writers and some that I have always idolized. Malice Domestic usually brings out cozy writers, traditional mystery writers, and many people from the East Coast. Sara Paretsky received the Lifetime Achievement Award, Charles Todd (mother and son duo) were the Guests of Honor, and Ann Cleeves was the International Guest of Honor. Agatha Awards were given out at a huge banquet on Saturday night, and on both Friday and Saturday you could go to panels about various topics of mysteries.

This was the scene when I arrived to register at the Hyatt Regency:

134The panel with the Jungle Red Writers was one of the popular hits since they do a quiz show every year. This year they included audience members in a rollicking rendition of “Name the authors in two minutes.” A sample question would be “How many authors can you name that write books set abroad?”

670_Jungle_Red_Game_at_MaliceStarting with the third from the left, sitting, are Hallie Ephron and Rhys Bowen, Moderator Charlaine Harris, Lucy Burdette and Hank Phillippi Ryan. The others were audience participants.

Other panels included such topics as “New Kids on the Block: Our Agatha Best First Novel Nominees,” or “Let There Be Lighthouses: Murder at the Seaside” or “You Could Just Die Laughing: Humor in Mysteries.”  My panel was “School for Murder: Academic Mysteries,” and it included Neil Plakcy, Lori Rader-Day, Triss Stein, me, and moderator Debra H. Goldstein.

panelAbove:  Myself, Lori Rader-Day, Moderator Deb Goldstein, Triss Stein, and Neil Plakcy.

The first morning they did “Malice Go Round,” which can best be described as speed dating for authors. Two authors went around to each of twenty tables and had to describe their books and give out goodies in just a few minutes. Then they went on to the next table when the bell rang. It was exhausting just watching.

I was also invited to two breakfasts, one for the Sisters in Crime members, and one for the new authors.

006boasOn the left is Catriona McPherson and on the right are four of the writers, editors, and owners of Henery Press, which publishes mysteries. (Ellen Byron, Gigi Pandian, Diane Vallere, and Kendel Flaum.)  The feather boas are traditionally worn by guppies at this breakfast.

The booksellers did a brisk business and the authors signed books people bought.IMG_2068

Silent Auction ItemsSilent Auction Items 2There was also a silent auction for articles donated by various people and groups. Here are some of the articles.



They had a hospitality room for participants, and you could place various marketing articles such as book marks and business cards there for people to take with them.

Guppy lunch COLLAGE Malice 2015

I met my editor, Lourdes Venard, for the first time face-to-face, and we went out for lunch with other members of the Sisters in Crime (SinC) Guppies group. Guppies stands for the Great Unpublished, although many of us are published. Lourdes is in the upper picture to the right of me in my pink sweater.

IMG_2067 One of my favorite parts of Malice this year was the opportunity to interview Hallie Ephron, author of Night Night, Sleep Tight.  I am writing the interview for First Draft, the newsletter of the SinC Guppies. Hallie was a wonderful interview, very gracious and forthcoming with answers to my questions about her author life and her newest book.

IMG_2071All in all, it was a marvelous and exhausting three days, meeting lots of people, making good contacts in the writing industry, and talking about books. I was promoting my Five Star Publishing book, Three May Keep a Secret, at this conference. I plan to go back next year just before my second Endurance mystery, Marry in Haste comes out June 2016.

FLASH ! FREE Scrivener Webinar, Thursday, May 21, 2015

scrivener coach“How To Use Scrivener to Write, Organize, & Export  Your Book into Various Formats for Printing, Editing, & Publishing”

Thursday, May 21, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time

I’m a great proponent of Scrivener,scrivener logo the “writing” program that lets you organize, format and export your finished work. Scrivener, in beta form, came along at a time when I was tearing my hair out trying to  get control of my first novel. For me, as for so many others, it proved a lifesaver; I’ve used it ever after.

Scrivener comes with an impressive array of featuresscrivener screen and the good folks at Literature & Latte, the parent company, keep tweaking the program. Thus, there’s a lot to learn about scrivener win-write_structure_revise scrivenerIf you’re completely new to Scrivener or if you’re already a user but interested in improving your skills, this should be a great webinar for you.

Hosts are best-selling author Joanna Penn

and Scrivener Coach Joseph Michael

The session will include a live Q&A as well as a recorded version of the event, plus a free e-book: “Focus & Productivity Secrets.”

Here again is where you can learn more about the webinar and register to attend:

See you there!

Writer’s Problem: Keeping the suspense/tension high

Last Saturday, my local writing group’s program included authors talking about how to solve a particular writing problem.   One presentation was on how to develop and maintain suspense.  The solution:  chapter ending hooks.

Nancy J. Cohen wrote an interesting blog post (Killzone Blog) that talked about seven types of chapter ending hooks.  These are used to provoke the reader’s curiosity or to shock or tease or entice or worry or otherwise propel your reader to the next page and chapter.  There may be more than the seven but I thought it was a really good list to start from.

These hooks can be found in lots of different mysteries and thrillers but to give you a few examples, I completed the list from a few of the books from my shelves.  Some fit better than others but I think you can get the idea from these.    Where needed, I included more than one sentence since I wanted everyone to get a sense of why I included it, and I’ve tried to give some context when I thought it would be helpful.

Decision:  Finally, he stopped, turned around and walked back, his steps slow but deliberate.    Louise Penny, A Trick of the Light, Chapter 15.

Danger:   Any cops come in on this and your granny’s dead.  Janet Evanovich, Seven-Up, Chap 12.danger

Revelation:  Someone would remember that review.  The artist himself.  Louise Penney, A Trick of the Light, Chapter 6.

New Character:  My sister’s driving the Buick.  Janet Evanovich, Seven-Up, Chapter 9.

Emotional Turning Point:   I didn’t know what the right grieving behavior should be from a boy whose favorite teacher ever, Laura Smiley, had only six days before slashed her wrists and bled to death. Diane Mott Davidson, Catering to Nobody, Chapter 1.   Note that this might also be revelation about how the Laura died so some of these could include more than one type of hook – or this might be better considered a revelation but I wanted to have something that illustrated how a hook could be more complicated.Puzzled

Puzzle :  It was signed by Ronald DeChooch.  Bad enough that he creeped me out at the social club, now he was sending me flowers.   Janet Evanovich, Seven-Up, Chap 3.

Sex:   Nobody had to tell them about the birds and the bees. Diane Mott Davidson, Catering to Nobody, Chap 20.  Note that sex in a cozy is a harder one since it’s generally off stage but possible.

I’m not suggesting that every single chapter has to have an ending hook.  But to really create the suspense/tension, this method if using them sprinkled throughout your novel seems like a really good idea that I am going to use on my current work in progress.

So now that we have these, how do you use them, or better yet, evaluate your novel for these?  Our speaker suggested creating a chart for your novel, chapter by chapter – it could look something  like the following:

Chapter #            Pages                    Situation              Excitement/Tension         Hook

I’ve used Davidson’s Catering to Nobody and Chapters 1 and 20 as examples to reflect how you might complete this based on what is happening in each chapter.  The following would be the first entry on the chart and then you’d follow it up for each succeeding chapter to see whether you have a hook or not.

Chapter #:    1

Pages:  13

Situation:  Catering the wake for Laura Smiley

Excitement/Tension:  Goldy’s (main character)  ex-husband will be at the wake with his girlfriend, who she has just learned, he is marrying.  MC’s son has a rough day with friends.  Missing supplies for catering to be done are coming in last minute.

Hook:   I didn’t know what the right grieving behavior should be from a boy whose favorite teacher ever, Laura Smiley, had only six days before slashed her wrists and bled to death.

Then work through each chapter of her mystery and Chapter 20 might look like this:

Chapter #:   20

Pages:  9

Situation:  Goldy (MC) visits Polmeroy to get honey

Excitement/Tension:   Arrives to get the honey and Polmeroy shows her his telescope where she sees her former father-in-law having sex with Patty Sue, who is not his wife.

Hook:  Nobody had to tell them about the birds and the bees.

When you’ve completed the chart you will have an idea of the excitement and tension in each chapter as well as which ones have ending hooks and which ones don’t.   This is a fairly simple and efficient process that doesn’t seem to take a lot of time. Plus you may already have some sort of chart like this where you can simply add the ending hooks.  Once done, you can then evaluate the ending hooks.  Are there too many clustered together?  Not enough through the novel?  Do you go too long between hooks?  Do you have a sagging middle without an ending hook to keep the reader wanting to stay up all night to find out what happens?  Using this, you can re-write to achieve your goals of creating or maintaining tension/suspense.

So what do you think?  Is this something you can use?  Do you use some other method?  Can you think of other chapter ending hooks to add to this list?

Purloined Prose or Synchronicity?

Purloined PlotsHow many times have you read a book, seen a movie, or watched a TV show that bore an uncanny resemblance to others you’ve encountered? I’m not talking about those endless remakes. Nor am I talking about déjà vu.

When a story line follows another so closely that you recognize the plot, does that mean that the author has stolen the plot from someone else? Probably not. Could it be synchronicity? Google defines synchronicity as the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.

formulaAlthough both suppositions might be true, the more reasonable explanation has to do with the reinvention of a successful formula. That’s right–a formula.

Okay, you may not be surprised, but I was shocked. I had no idea that most fiction writing could be boiled down to a formula. When an agent described my urban fantasy as following the typical formula– protagonist receives powers on her birthday, finds a mentor, falls in love, and battles a villain, I wanted to cry. I thought it was a bad thing. Turns out everybody does it. Why? Because it works.

From the age of understanding, we’ve been influenced by every story we’ve ever heard, every TV program or movie we’ve ever seen, and everything we’ve ever read. Of course we’ve picked up on the winning formulas that make up a good story. And, the plots that go into our stories reflect the history, science, and technology of our time or the era that interest us. How often have you heard about some technological breakthrough or strange occurrence and gotten an idea for a story?

CinderellaHow many others do you think had the same idea? I can’t even begin to guestimate–millions, billions? All those people probably aren’t writers. But, of those who are, the ones who’ve been exposed to the same information and think it would make a good story will undoubtedly have different story ideas. We all have our own unique style of writing, our own voice, and our own sense of plot.

pretty womanStories like Cinderella have been told over and over again with unique and creative twists. Look at the movie Pretty Woman. You have the amiable prostitute, treated like trash by “polite” and “not-so-polite” society. The prince takes his time recognizing her worth, but in the end, comes through, and she lives (one supposes) happily ever after. Julia Roberts’ character was quite a different protagonist from Cinderella, but the basic formula flows through the two stories.

Now, let’s look at mysteries. Mysteries, in general, consist of a dead body or two, a sleuth, suspects, red herrings, danger, and a satisfying conclusion. Mysteries, like all genres, can be divided into sub-groups, each with its own formula. Use keywords like “mystery types” or “mystery genres” to find the various categories.

Here are a few sites I found. Mystery Categories, 17 Mystery Sub-Genres, Murder By 4.

Some of the sub-genres can be broken down again into more specific types. One of my favorites under mystery is the cozy. Cozies feature amateur sleuths who have a compelling reason to solve the crime. There is no gratuitous blood, sex or gore–think Agatha Christie. Once you decide to read a cozy, the next step is to decide what type of cozy you want. These books are often broken down into household categories having to do with hobbies, crafts, pets, or cooking. Sometimes the book is based on the sleuth’s employment. Again, use your search engine to discover books based on specific criteria i.e., “knitting mysteries”, “gardening mysteries”, or my first choice, “psychic mysteries”.

Today, the internet makes it easy to find what you want. You don’t have to despair if you run out of books by your favorite author. An internet search will bring up other books, similar to those. You may find that some stories come very close to those we’ve previously read. Does that mean one author copied another? “Yes” and “no”.

IMG_0149For instance, take this scenario. One author, specializing in gardening, has her protagonist find dead bodies in the gardens of homes where she works. How many other ideas might there be for our gardening detective to discover the victim? Probably not a whole lot of choices out there.  However, the author would have followed the same formula, so everything seems familiar.

swan with daisyCheck out how many books are out there with a green-thumb sleuth. It stands to reason that some of these books will have a lot of plot overlap. The major differences will center around the author’s voice and the characters. And, of course, the plant genus.

No purloined plots.

Think synchronicity, formula, overwhelming tide of writers, and underwhelming possible scenarios. The next time someone tells you that your manuscript, short story or book is just like the latest best seller or movie, lift up your head, smile and say, “Thank you.” It means you’ve followed the formula to perfection.

And, remember, keep writing.

Things I Have Learned about Writing That Run Contrary to Accepted Practice: Installment #1 — Contests

Go anywhere on the web and you’ll see this warning:

DO NOT 4Everybody’s BFF, “Preditors & Editors”, says:

“We strongly advise writers to enter only those contests without a fee. P&E does not recommend any contests with entry fees.” also pans fee-based contests, saying:

“…often a fee can be a red flag for a scam” and “you may want to stick to free writing contests” as “there are certainly enough of them.”

They go on to list 27, headlined by the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. huh.

Or this, from

“ brings you only the writing contests that have $0 submission fee. In other words, we only list below the writing contests that do not require an entry fee. There are obviously many other writing contests, but we don’t include them below.”

In fairness, things are beginning to change – and it’s about time.  Yes, there are scams, as there are in every field of endeavor. But does that mean all fee-based contests are bad? Absolutely not.

ms. du 2

Daphne du Maurier

For several years, I’ve had the  privilege of being a judge for the Daphne du Maurier Awards for Excellence in Romantic Mystery/Suspense and Mainstream Mystery, popularly referred to as the Daphnes. To enter the Daphne competition, you must pay a fee of $30 and send along your baby (first 5000 words for the Unpublished division, four copies of the book itself for Published) by March 15th of the year. Finalists for each division are announced in May (Unpublished) and June (Published). Between March 15th and May/June, the entries are judged.

What exactly does that mean?

First of all, there are five separate Romantic Suspense categories (Historical, Paranormal, Inspirational, Single Title, Series) and one Mainstream Mystery Suspense category for each division. The number of entries is capped per category and totals 400 Unpubs and 240 Pubs. Each Unpubbed submission has three first-round judges,  Pubbeds get four.  Unpubbed second round has one editor judge and one agent judge. Pubbed also has two final round judges.

You can do the math – if your head isn’t spinning by now. Hint: My judge number is in the high 200’s. It takes a lot of manpower to pull off something like this.

All Daphne judges must undergo training. After that, you fill out a detailed score sheet for each submission in the genre you’re judging. I usually judge in straight mystery suspense or romantic suspense. Here’s part of one sheet Daphne provides to help entrants understand how they will be judged. Complete copies of sample sheets are available here: final As you can see, in addition to multiple choice answers, the sheet asks that we elaborate on the answer to each question. (If we fail to do this, someone in management will gently remind us.)

The second part of judging is commenting directly on the manuscript itself. Again, we are “encouraged” to make detailed and substantive suggestions. Word’s Comment feature comes in handy here though this time around I found some of my comments really put it to a test.

Copies of both the score sheet and the critiqued entry are given to the entrant.

This year, I was an “Emergency” Judge. I was not assigned any manuscripts at the beginning of the judging period but received them at the very end. Basically, because of an email address snafu, I had a week to complete what other judges finished in a month.

Fortunately, I had only two submissions. They were each 5,000 words long. Plus a 675 word synopsis to give me greater insight.  How hard could that be?

It took the entire week to do the job right – and I barely squeaked in under the deadline. I figure that each of my entrants received about 30 hours in dedicated, considered critique time – at a total cost to them of around $1 per hour. (Bear in mind that I was only one of three judges whose comments the entrants saw at the end of the contest. That $1/hour figure is only for my time.)

Now, I know that some judges give more to the task than others. I can remember being a contest entrant one year and receiving a final score sheet that looked like the judge had blown on it – and that was about all. (I wasn’t about to complain, though; the other two judges had plenty of thoughtful, helpful comments.) That was also a number of years ago and I believe our judges are increasingly professional.  It’s an honor to be asked to do this job; most of us take it very seriously.

So, do I think contests that ask for money are bad for authors?

Of course, if they’re flim-flam artists.

But absolutely not if they’re a reputable organization such as the Romance Writers of America, the parent organization for Kiss of Death, the direct sponsoring group of Daphne.rwa logo Of course, nothing quite says legitimacy like big name winners. So, who’s actually won the Daphne Award in the past?daphne results

None other than the likes of Lisa Gardner, C.J. Barry, and Erica Spindler, among others. Can’t do much better than that.

Bottom line: do you get your $30 worth at Daphne?

Dear reader — the ball is in your court.

~~Britt Vasarhelyi

Springtime in Endurance

As I sit in my office looking out at the rain and wind in our Illinois spring, I am reminded that the little town in my mysteries, Endurance, is based on the spot where I live. Right now the ornamental trees and shrubs are in full bloom, and the gingko tree in my 009 (320x249)front yard is just starting to grow its interesting triangular-shaped leaves. Mother Nature is definitely changing courses and revving up the green colors to move into summer. Nature is something we can’t hurry.

In recent weeks, I drove east of town looking for the trees and bushes to bud out and become spring-like so I could get the last photo banner for my website at  For several weeks now, I figured we could get the spring photo, but it seemed to take forever to get rid of the dark010 (320x240) browns of winter and break into the buds of spring.

During three previous seasons, I picked up my photographer, Lori Seals, and we did what she calls “a drive-by shooting” to take a photo for the banner on my website. It was my thought to have a banner for each season. Then I asked her to Photoshop my picture and laptop in on top of the landscape and also add a road sign to Endurance. I found the “road to Endurance” by driving down a number of country locations in the area. Nothing looked exactly right. I wanted a curve and a lot of trees as well as the look of a rural highway. Eventually, I found the exact thing I was looking for: a road I had driven many times to head into the Lake Bracken area about twelve miles east of my little town.


So Lori the Photographer and I drove over there on four separate seasonal occasions, and, because we had nowhere to park, I dropped her off and she took the picture while I drove on and found a turnaround spot. Once we were stopped by trains, and once she saw a mother deer and babies near the road. But now we are finished with the four seasons and the banner for spring will be up next week.

Setting is very important in my mysteries. My little town of Endurance (population 15,000), is a character in itself. It has a history which I have written into the first two books in the series, and it has a present-day, Midwestern atmosphere with plenty of unique, small-town characters. The first book runs from summer through fall, the second book takes place during the winter, and the third book (my work in progress) continues the same winter and into the spring. Weather and seasons are important in the lives of the characters. Believe me, weather is usually a highlight in Midwest conversations because it changes almost hourly.

I’ll miss these drives with Lori because they afforded good opportunities to catch up on our lives, and I also used them to ask her questions about marketing. Her husband was a student of mine—of course—and it’s always interesting to check on how his doctorate dissertation is going. It seems strange, but not unusual, that I had a history with him (teacher/student) before he met Lori, got married, and had two children. That happens to Grace Kimball, my main character, all the time too.

Main StreetIf you get the idea that my books and my life in a small Midwest town are intertwined in a significant way, you are so right.

Grab a Group

lonelyWriting is such a solitary occupation, that I’ve often felt at a loss as to my literary abilities. I can look at a piece of writing and think it’s award material, or I can look at the same piece of writing and think it’s garbage. I’ve noticed that most of my insecurities attack me right after I’ve finished reading a riveting book.

I know. I know. One of the Golden Rules–Don’t compare.

That’s why input during the creative process from other writers is so important. Without help from someone who understands not only the “how” of writing, but also the emotional havoc we put ourselves through during the writing process, the lone author can become discouraged.  A loss of faith can lead to eventual abandonment of a manuscript that, with a little help, might have ended up on the NY Times bestseller list. So often, writers who have a great story are simply bogged down by the mechanics. All they need is a little guidance to get on the right track.

Guidance can come in many ways: books on writing, writing classes, writing conferences, or critique groups (online or in person). All have been important throughout my writing experience, especially at the beginning when I had no idea what the art of fiction-writing entailed. Today, I continue to use all these writing assets, however, my main source of guidance and encouragement is my weekly writing group.

We’re a small group, presently at five, who gather together to help each other RWA '14through the anxieties of creating our fictional tales. We each have very different styles of writing and mostly different genres even though we have entered, at times, the same genre-specific contests.

if you walk into the local Barnes & Noble bookstore on a Friday evening, you can usually find us sitting in the café working on our current projects. After we schmooze, each person reads something they’ve written. The rest of the crew listens for problems like back story, POV, unnecessary or too little information/description. Then we discuss possibilities and/or methods to help the author achieve a more satisfying result. Sometimes, one of us has a new idea and needs help growing it. A lively brainstorming session ensues where everything is on the table, no matter how outrageous or off-the-wall. This type of impromptu discussion tends to push a writer beyond their comfort zone and open exciting new alternatives. Many times my fellow writers’ crazy ideas jogged me out of my story tunnel-vision and led to intriguing new inspiration.

One of the most important assets of my writing group is the diversity. Not only do we write in different genres, but our minds work very differently. When I put my words out there, I’m always astounded at the relevant ideas tossed out by my colleagues. Their input has been invaluable, adding fascinating new storyline deviations I couldn’t have imagined.

We’ve been together for a few years and know each other pretty well. Each of us has what I like to call recurring quirks that plague our writing. When one of those quirks materializes in someone’s writing, we all immediately see the problem and address it.

mysteryAlthough I’ve developed a much better awareness of my worst writing habits, I don’t always catch them. For instance, I’m famous for telling rather than showing. Sometimes, I’m in such a hurry to get a scene written, I fall back into that trap. The group always catches it. Thankfully, no one is afraid to tell me. As a matter of fact, there’s usually a grin and a chuckle accompanying the critique.

The current members of our group write Mystery, Paranormal, Science Fiction,paranormal and Fantasy. We’re each working on our books as well as short stories. To date, three of us have published short stories and, I know it’s only a matter of time before our books are out there. I can see positive changes in everyone’s writing skills.

The old adage that says the more you write, the better you’ll write has been true for our group. However, I also know that the constant positive reinforcement we give and receive each week has been responsible for all the confidence we’ve gained. Two years ago I wrote a short story that garnered heavy critique. Although there was support for the story premise, I felt discouraged and I put it away. Last year, someone asked me what had happened to that story. I dragged it out again and worked on it. This time, the group encouraged me to submit it. That was Micah’s Gift, the story I published in the Black Petals ezine a few months ago.

Sci fiDuring this whole process of learning to think like a writer, I’ve discovered that my mind can be a dangerous place to visit. The stories I tell myself aren’t necessarily true, especially when it comes to my writing. Sometimes, even though I like a piece I’ve written, I insist to myself that it isn’t good. How foolish. In denying that what I liked was good, I not only put myself down as a writer, but also as a reader.

When I read for enjoyment, the books that catch my interest are being read and admired by hundreds of thousands of people. I don’t finish everything I start. If a book doesn’t hook me after a few chapters, I put it down. I’m a discriminating reader. That same discrimination transfers to what I write. Unfortunately, it often takes another person to point that out to me.

Not all writing groups are the same. Some are made up of seasoned writers who might not be the best fit for someone just beginning their writing career. Some groups might have too much people-pleasing and not enough serious critiques. Other groups might have a little of each. My suggestion is to try working with a group for a few months to get the flavor. Give it a fair chance and do your part. Make sure that you are totally participating. If a group has a specific writing goal before it convenes, make sure to meet that goal. Also, remember, it’s not always about you. Each member expects the same careful input for their work as they’ve given to yours. A writing group is about team work. Each member helps the others whether it’s writing advice, cheerleading, or commiseration. Here is an interesting site with some good advice.cheerleader

If you have trouble finding a writing group in your area, why not start one yourself? Let the people in your library know you’re interested and check local papers, colleges or other writing fellowships. They often know about groups in the area. There’s also an online group called where you can look for writing groups or advertise your desire to start one. You don’t have to be alone.

And, remember! Whatever you do, keep on writing.





The Fat Lady Sings (Again) – to Beat Sheets

CORRECTION: The wonderful Jami Gold has made a correction to this post. Although a number of “Beat Sheets” below are attributed to different authors, they were actually created by Jami herself. She’s drawn from the teachings of Larry Brooks, Michael Hauge, etc. to assemble them, hence their names. The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet was created by Elizabeth Davis. Confused yet?  Don’t worry. All will become clear as you read further.
Two other suggestions from Jami: first, she recommends this link for her Scrivener Beat Sheet: . And second, she provides a “clearinghouse” link for all Beat Sheets here:

I’ve been seeing Fat Ladies around every corner.

fatlady finalI think I’m ready to dive into my rewrite again, then I spot another Fat Lady and I’m off into more great writing tips. So here goes the penultimate, on the fascinating subject of “Beat Sheets.”

First off, there’s no other way to say it — Jamie Gold is a treasure trove for writers.  I had read about “Beat Sheets” elsewhere but fortunately a link took me to Jamie’s site and its almost endless mines of writing advice. The library of blog posts on almost every facet of the writer’s craft would be valuable stuff for any author, but what sets Jamie Gold’s blog apart is a concentration on structure and how to evaluate your manuscript or your outline using “Beat Sheets.”

For those, like me, who’ve come to Beat Sheets rather late in the game, this is a method of plotting and editing that breaks down the structure of any book – and I do mean any – according to Story Beats, also known as Turning Points.  A Beat Sheet reduces the manuscript to Acts and Beats, which, depending on the version, are defined as Inciting Incident, End of the Beginning,  Pinchpoint,  Theme Stated, Catalyst, B-Story, Hook Moment, All Is Lost, and more, (many or few, again depending on whose Sheet you use). Each Beat is given a one-line description,  Pages From and To, and Word Counts From and To.  There are target ranges for the latter two.

Beat Sheets began in Hollywood as a way of evaluating scripts to make sure that they had proper dramatic tension. The late Blake Snyder invented and popularized the tool in his wildly successful “Save the Cat” books, software, and workshops.  His website  BannerAd_SaveTheCat_400PixelWide.indd includes Beat breakdowns of major films. Even if you’re not much of a movie fan, reading these quick analyses  gives a potent glimpse into the value of this device. Already named Hollywood’s “Most Successful Spec Screenwriter,” Mr. Snyder is arguably the most influential Hollywood screenwriter ever because of his singular contribution of the Beat concept.

It shouldn’t go without saying that the idea of reducing any film to a succession of plot points is not without its detractors. Slate Magazine recently ran an article entitled “Save the Movie! The 2005 Screenwriting Book That’s Taken Over Hollywood—And Made Every Movie Feel The Same.”

Whether or not its formulaic, and in a way it’s hard to argue that it isn’t, the Beat Sheet is a neat cheat Sheet. It’s like the old sentence diagram, which has fallen out of use in modern schools, but was something many of us grew up with.



After a few years of diagramming, most of us could look at a sentence and quickly tell whether or not its parts were all in the right place. Beat Sheets are similar guides. That Hollywood has adopted them as the Holy Grail of scriptwriting doesn’t make them any less useful to us as mystery writers.

In fact, all you have to do is read down a quick list of movies that Salon says supposedly fit into the Beat template – various “Star Trek” films,  khan2  “Skyfall,” “The Dark Knight,” “ The Avengers,” “Olympus Has Fallen” olympus2    “ Oblivion,” “ 21 Jump Street,” “Fast & Furious 6,” etc. etc. – and you know you’re into some pretty heavy stuff, creatively speaking. As Salon itself says: “It’s as if a mad scientist has discovered a secret process for making a perfect, or at least perfectly conventional, summer blockbuster.” Well, I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a blockbuster?

Jami Gold’s contribution to Beat Sheets has been to bring them into the realm of novel writing in a big way. First, she’s assembled the most widely used versions both from Hollywood and from other authors and distilled from them a Master Beat Sheet, a Basic Beat Sheet, and other structure specific Sheets. Secondly, she provides in-depth instruction in understanding and using the concept and the templates themselves. You can obtain all the commonly used Sheets at her site. There’s good news for Scrivener users, too, as she’s created a dedicated Scrivener template:

Scrivener-OutlinerAuthor Tim Stout also provides an excellent basic understanding of the fundamentals of Beat Sheets here:

I suggest you read Tim’s discussion alongside Jamie’s introduction to the concept at:

This is Jami’s Basic Beat Sheet. (Make sure to go to Jami’s site to obtain the actual Excel Files. These are static jpeg images.) basic beat sheetAs its name implies, this is the simplest of the Beat Sheets you’re likely to find. They go up in complexity but still are contained on one page.

So you can see the possibilities, here’s the original by Blake Snyder:

Beat SheetWhile you’re at Mr. Snyder’s site, take a fun detour to the list of the dozens and dozens of movies that have been analyzed by the incredibly talented “Master Cats.” Their analyses will blow your mind. One caveat: The Master Cats use Mr. Snyder’s Beat Sheet but they all explain each Beat in depth. In other words, they don’t confine their deconstructions to one Sheet, though they all can be reduced to one page in the end.

Also visit if you have a moment fate smallThe bestseller under discussion is in the steampunk genre,  but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it’s still a bestseller.

On to other types of Beat Sheets. Michael Hauge created one for the Character Arc:

Michael-Hauge-SpreadsheetSusan Kaye Quinn has a slightly different take on Beat Sheets. She’s created an Emotional Arc Sheet at:

Jami’s Romance Beat Sheet looks like this:

Romance-Beat-SheetAnd her Master Beat Sheet is — well, masterful:

master beat sheetHere’s Larry Brooks’ Beat Sheet for the Story Arc:

Story-Structure-spreadsheet-previewLarry, by the way, does a superb Beat Sheet deconstruction of “Shutter Island,” as well as other bestsellers, both in our time and in previous eras.  It’s definitely worth visiting his site for that alone. Go to:  As with the Master Cat deconstructions, this particular one is somewhat lengthy. His single page analyses  include: “Master and Commander,” “Commodore Hornblower,” “The Lake House,” and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” among others.

This is Larry’s deconstruction of the Bourne Identity:

Inciting Event: Bourne discovers his IDs at the Zurich bank.
First Plot Point: Bourne hires Marie to help him escape the Embassy and find his Paris address.
First Pinch Point: Chimp attacks Bourne in his Paris apartment.
Midpoint: Bourne and Marie abandon her car and go on the run together.
Second Pinch Point: Wombozi is assassinated, and Bourne learns he is an assassin.
Third Plot Point: Bourne kills the Professor.
Climax: Bourne calls out the Alex.
Climactic Moment: Bourne escapes the CIA trap.
Resolution: Alex is assassinated; Bourne finds Marie on the Mediterranean.


I also love the way Larry explains the importance of Beat Sheets.  In one place, he says:

“Think of writing a story as something akin to raising a child.

“Your parenting has a very different and distinct contextual mission over the life of your child, defined in blocks of years: infant, toddler, snot-nosed kid, teen, clueless young adult, and then… too late now, they’re on their own.

“We’re just lucky if they’re even talking to us at this point.

“The reasonable parent doesn’t treat a teen the same way they’d treat an adult.  And you don’t write a Part 1 scene the way you’d write a Part 3 scene… or any other scene that isn’t in Part 1.” (emphasis added)

A great way of saying a place for everything and everything in its place – on a Beat Sheet.

Whether or not you ultimately decide to incorporate Beat Sheets in your writing arsenal, they’re definitely something to be aware of.  So, dive into the topic with your mind open – and you might just surface on the other side with a very powerful weapon indeed.

Do you have experience using Beat Sheets?  Have an example or deconstruction of a novel you’d like to share? If so, please add to the discussion. We’ll look forward to hearing from you!

~~Britt Vasarhelyi

and coming soon: ESCAPE TO PANAMA

Talking Books, Films and Garage Sales with Author Suzi Weinert

Today I am thrilled to be talking with Suzi Weinert who is the author of the Garage Sale mysteries series. First a bit of history:  Moving regularly as an Air Force brat, after college Suzi married an Army officer and in the succeeding 21 years, moved 11 more times across the US, Germany and the Philippines. Transforming each new house into a home, she discovered on-post thrift shops where military families consign for sale whatever they can’t take on a move and later supplement their belongings from their new destination’s thrift shop.

Business PortraitBased on that military experience, she investigated local bazaars and civilian thrift shops (many benefitting charities, organizations, churches and social causes). After exploring huge markets like San Diego’s swap meets and Ft. Lauderdale’s flea market, she finally settled on her favorites: garage and estate sales! They all offer potential treasures with the added benefit of recycling and she’s ever alert for stories to enliven her writing.

Her first mystery thriller, Garage Sale Stalker, unfolds in McLean, Virginia, where she and her husband lived for 25 years after his Army retirement. Her stories reflect first-hand knowledge of the area. Researching for accuracy, she attended the 10-week Fairfax County Citizen Police Academy course, one highlight of which is the citizen-ride-along in a police cruiser during a normal 12-hour shift to observe the patrolman’s challenges and responses.

How did you come up with the ideas for your book?

A frightening experience at a garage sale prompted my trying to sort out what happened on paper, maybe as a one-page short story. Soon this short story had chapters and looked suspiciously like the start of a book. But I’d never written a book so I needed to cram knowledge to do so. In college I’d majored in psychology and minored in creative writing, but that was MANY years ago. As these “uninvited” chapters increased on my computer, I read “how to” books for writers and began attending writers conferences.

What was the process for finding your publisher?

I found an editor at one writers’ conference and my publisher at another. When this first book was finally published (5 years to write it and 2 years to find a publisher), I was amazed and thought “Garage Sale Stalker” (GSS) was the only book I’d ever write. But my publisher said, “No,  you’re on to something big. This is just the first in your Garage Sale Series.” So I started the 2nd book, “Garage Sale Diamonds” (GSD) realizing now that I could write a book and had a publisher if I did.

How did it become a Hallmark film?

To my amazement, a Hollywood producer (whose wife had read my book, given to her by a friend) approached me about buying my characters and my idea of mystery/intrigue/danger at garage sales. We signed a contract and 2 years went by with no activity. The producer explained at the outset they’d make many changes. I agreed to this. Then, two years passed with no movie. I feared the concept had crashed and burned. Then, suddenly, the producer sent me a screen play, said his casting department was searching for the right star and invited me to attend the filming in Vancouver, BC.

Were you there for the filming?

Yes. Never having been on a movie set before, I was agog. They worked 12-hour days and filmed on site. A scout had found and rented the needed locations where the studio crews, stars and staff went every day to film. Their mobile trucks (wardrobe, beauty salon, cast dressing rooms, fancy wash rooms with showers and makeup mirrors in addition to flush potties, and all-important food vehicles) also trek to that location for however long that filming phase takes.

The director, Peter DeLuise (son of actor Dom DeLuise) invited me to do a walk-on in a garage sale background scene. I hadn’t prepared for this with makeup or clothes but thought, “If not now, when?” Of course, I said yes. But don’t blink or you’ll miss my tiny part.

Did you have input on the scripts?

The producer graciously sent me every draft of the screenplay and invited my comments. I made a few suggestions and (no surprise) they were ignored — because screenplay writing is an entirely different art form from writing a book. The producer is an absolute professional and his talented screenplay writer (Walter Klenhard) did a fabulous job.

Did you have a chance to meet Lori Loughlin who portrays your main character and what is she like?

GarageSaleMystery_0001UYes, she was charming and very gracious to me even though by that time the screenplay, which superseded the book, was their new bible. Why they chose to treat me royally when my book was long in the background still amazes me. Lori is also a real professional. She knew all her lines for every scene and spoke them take after take (often 7 or more) in a fresh, convincing way as if it were the first time.

A few fun facts  about Suzi and the films based on her books:  Her first book (Garage Sale Stalker) was published when she was 75 and her second book (Garage Sale Diamonds) when she was 78. Her 3rd book, “Garage Sale Riddle,” should be published later this year when she’s 80. So her experience helps others realize it’s never too late to discover and strum your talents.

In the hands of the talented producer, the 1st Hallmark film in 2013, “Garage Sale Mystery,” (GSM) brought history-making viewership success. Based on that success, the company decided on a name change from the old Hallmark Movie Channel to the new Hallmark Movie & Mystery Channel.

Their 2nd movie based on her work, “All That Glitters,” (ATG) aired in 2014. The 3rd film, “The Deadly Room,” (TDR) premiered on April 11th. They’re currently filming a 4th film, “The Wedding Dress,” (TWD) presumably to premiere in 2016.

A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters-in-Crime, Suzi lives with her husband in the Virginia countryside.  For more information, see her website: