Friday, April 29, 2016

Sweet Success Celebrates Natalia Brothers, The Bride's Vestige

By: Kathie Scrimgeour

Natalia Brothers’ dark fantasy short story, “The Bride’s Vestige” (ASIN B01CUVBF5A, 17 pages, Amazon Digital Services) was released March 10, 2016 on Kindle.

Peter Moss ignores little mishaps that start happening to him after he pockets an antique locket he discovered at a disturbed gravesite. Dark local folklore surrounds the grave, but Peter, a rational college student, doesn’t believe in curses.

His nonchalant mindset crumbles when he learns that the locket could be the same as the one featured in a portrait of a beheaded woman. Fascinated and mortified, Peter rushes to see the painting. But whether or not mystic forces are behind the incidents, his intent to uncover the jewelry’s history might be the worst decision of his life.

Born in Moscow, Natalia grew up with the romance and magic of Russian fairy tales. She never imagined that one day she’d be swept off her feet by an American Marine. An engineer-physicist-chemist, Natalia realized that the powder metallurgy might not be her true calling when on a moonless summer night, she was spooked by cries of a loon in a fog-wrapped meadow. What if, a writer’s unrelenting muse, took hold of her. Two of her passions define her being. Natalia is an orchid expert and she writes dark fantasy. -Email: -Website

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Finding my Voice on Social Media

By: Natalia Brothers 

Nearly three decades have passed, but I remember that week as if it happened yesterday…

I’m talking about crystallography.

Crystallography was the hardest discipline I had ever had to study in college. Physics, math, chemistry-oriented German—no problem, but complicated three-dimensional crystal-structure models were absurdly difficult to recreate on paper as two-dimensional sketches (the purpose of that exercise still eludes me). Unfortunately, those sketches were the condition for being allowed to take the final test and finish the course. Have you ever faced a situation when no matter how hard you study/exercise/try, there’s no guarantee you will accomplish the task?

My past year went like that. I signed a publishing contract, and jumping into the world of social media became an unavoidable necessity. The avalanche of things I had to learn hit me with crushing force. It was crystallography all over again. I had no idea how I was going to figure it all out.

First, the technical aspect of any social media platform. Whether I was creating a blog, Facebook Author’s Page, or a website, it started with a big “Okay, how do I do this?” Learning how to set up an account, upload photos, add links didn’t require extensive technical knowledge but took time. Lots of it, because the amount of information was staggering. For example, have you ever participated in a Virtual Book Party? I was asked to enter such an event before I knew how things worked on Facebook, so I joined a “party” in progress to see what was involved. It lasts for hours. If someone comments on a post from two hours ago, that post jumps on top of the feed. You need to refresh the page to see new posts. Complicated? No. Takes time to understand what’s going on? You bet.

Design. I never know what works best until I try it. One of many things that makes me comfortable as a Twitter user is that I can change my banner/cover photo all day long and it doesn’t inform my followers every time I do so. A header that took me hours to create looked beautiful—a wall of framed landscapes—but the number of my new followers dropped while I kept it posted. The header that works? The one with the title of my unpublished novel and the tagline.

Content. A year ago, attending Pikes Peak Writers Night, I announced that I tripled my Twitter followers that afternoon: from a single follower my numbers jumped up to three. During the meeting, someone gave me a few tips on how that platform worked. I’ve been tweeting away ever since. I just celebrated my first anniversary with over 2,000 followers. Of course it took time to learn, but I discovered several hashtags that allow me to connect with other writers on a weekly basis and showcase my writing style. I participate in #2bittues on Tuesdays and #1linewed on Wednesdays. The host announces the week’s theme, and authors post lines from their WIPs. A new hashtag was recently created for Thursdays, a similar idea but tailored for published works. Have you tried #Thurds?

I recently realized that while on Facebook my friends saw plenty of my posts, on Twitter my hobbies—orchids, photography—were disconnected from writing. I wanted to find a theme that would show who I was with a “click of a button,” something that would link my dark fantasy genre with my other interests. Just like with crystallography years ago, when I persevered and passed the course, my year-long social media quest led me to an answer. I chose a theme that always fascinated me as a storyteller and photographer: Atmospheric Settings. I created a new hashtag and use it daily to post pictures of places that inspire my writing.

It has been an eventful year. I parted ways with the publisher; by the time this article is posted, I will either sign a new contract—or make a daring decision to go Indie. I’ve learned so much in the past twelve months. I have a lot more to learn. Would you say that social media is your second nature? Or is it more like what crystallography was for me? I doubt it will ever become my addiction, but I admit that I’m having fun. I hope to see you on Twitter.

About the Writer: Born in Moscow, Natalia grew up with the romance and magic of Russian fairy tales. She never imagined that one day she’d be swept off her feet by an American Marine. An engineer-physicist-chemist, Natalia realized that the powder metallurgy might not be her true calling when on a moonless summer night she was spooked by cries of a loon in a fog-wrapped meadow. What if, a writer’s unrelenting muse, took hold of her. Two of her passions define her being. Natalia is an orchid expert and she writes dark fantasy.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Reading Fees in the Short Story and Poetry Market?

By: Karen Albright Lin

You’ve seen them, literary magazines with editors who ask for reading fees to consider your short stories. Are they vultures waiting on fences ready to prey on people's dreams? Are they victimizing those who aren’t seasoned writers ready to publish? I can’t help but wonder if it is human instinct to want to be immortal in some way, leave something of ourselves behind (even if it’s in the cloud ether). After being turned down by the lit mags that have no reading fees, isn’t it tempting to pay our way into publication? Is that what the charge is all about?

It feels a lot like vanity-publishing a novel. We have the product, those words we’ve massaged into obedience. We should be paid, not the other way around. Right? Many of these lit mags make money off the stories they sell. It sounds as if they are taking advantage of writers, charging for a read without any guarantee of publication. Surely they know full well that most of those who send work in won’t ever see it in print or available online. Sounds like exploitation, right? 

Often it is. But then, I've been on the lit mag editor side of this equation. Four different university magazines. It was overwhelming how much was sent in. We didn’t charge reading fees. Maybe we should have. Sifting through piles and piles of submissions was a painful labor of love. But because of those experiences, I understand that the lit mag business can result in having no compensation and much agony. 

Requesting a little bit of money—often $10 to $15—to consider a short story or a group of poems naturally whittles down the number of submissions and pays for the time it takes to read and decide about the works’ worthiness or appropriateness for the magazine. I’ve paid to enter contests. Is this much different? I can appreciate and support a small reading fee or contest entry fee if the magazine is a quality one with a track record (Glimmer Train comes to mind). But I’d hope a magazine or e-zine that charges to consider your work will give it a serious read and comment on it. Feedback is worth something too. 

Others will surely disagree and I can understand where they’re coming from.  This is just one writer’s opinion.

About the Writer: Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Quote of the Week and the Week to Come

"Real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what." ~ Harper Lee

Source: Bing and Wikipedia

Famed author Nelle Harper Lee was born April 28, 1926- Feb. 19, 2016, in Monroeville, Alabama. Lee is best known for writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), and more recently Go Set a Watchman, a novel set two decades before To Kill a Mockingbird.

This week on Writing from the Peak:

Mon. April 25           Reading Fees for Short Stories or Poetry? by Karen Albright Lin

Wed. April 27          Finding my Voice on Social Media by Natalia Brothers

Wed. April 29          Sweet Success Celebrates Natalia Brothers

Friday, April 22, 2016

Sweet Success Celebrates Ronnie Lee Graham and The Inventor

By: Kathie Scrimgeour

Ronnie Lee Graham’s second book, The Inventor, (ISBN 978-1-5127-3239-9 (hard), 978-1-5127-3238-2 (soft), 978-1-5127-3237-5 (e-book), 264 pages) was released on February 23, 2016 by Westbow Press, A Division of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan. In this christian fiction novel, the good side wins, but it is never that simple. It is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble (web),, and other sites. Visit Ronnie Lee’s website at, or the Facebook page for The Inventor at

Robbert Gillan is a regular Joe with boyish good looks and outlook. He goes about his low level government contracting job dreaming of one day finding an idea that will improve the world. By contrast, the rugged and opportunistic General Mark Thomas is desperate to have a new innovation to build his legacy on. The General’s mistress, Minky, an auburn haired gold-digger who plays by her own rules, sets their paths toward conflict. Meanwhile, the General’s wife, Marge, is searching for something more meaningful and in the process learns the most powerful lesson of all.

Ronnie Lee Graham lives in Colorado with his dog, Roadie. In his life, he has been everything from an Illinois farm kid fishing in the Mississippi river, to a military logistics advisor in foreign countries. Today, when not writing, he is most likely to be found running a local trail or doing volunteer work with a charity that gives bicycles to homeless persons.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Make Your Dialogue Carry Weight

By: Barbara Nickless

Dialogue is one of fiction's heavy lifters. It advances the story by conveying information, revealing relationships, showing socioeconomic status and expressing characters' moods. Really good dialogue will perform at least two of these functions in every scene where it appears.

The best dialogue is also fraught with tension. And tension, as we all know, is what keeps a reader turning pages.

Here's an example from Dennis Lehane's crime novel, Mystic River. In this short scene, a man phones his wife to tell her that the police have found the car driven by their missing teenage daughter. The scene is almost entirely dialogue, with only two tags and a single narrative sentence used to strengthen our emotional response to the father's horror.

But the dialogue carries a lot of weight. In fewer than 30 lines, we not only advance the plot and gain insight about the characters, we get unexpected conflict. Lehane doesn't have to tell us anything about his characters. He shows it all through dialogue.

[Please note: Two expletives have been partially censored.]

"Baby," Jimmy managed before he had to clear his throat.
"Jimmy?" A slight edge to her voice. "Where are you?"
"I'm … Look … I'm on Sydney Street."
"What's wrong?"
"They found her car, Annabeth."
"Whose car?"
"They? The police? They?"
"Yeah. She's … missing. In Pen Park somewhere."
"Oh, Jesus God. No, right? No, no, Jimmy."
Jimmy felt it fill him now—that dread, that awful certainty, the horror of thoughts he'd kept clenched behind a shelf in his brain.
"We don't know anything yet. But her car's been here all night and the cops—"
"Jesus Christ, Jimmy."
"—are searching the park for her. Tons of them. So …"
"Where are you?"
"I'm on Sydney. Look—"
"On the f---ing street? Why aren't you in there?"
"They won't let me in."
"They? Who the f--- are they? Is she their daughter?"
"No. Look, I—"
"You get in there. Jesus. She could be hurt. Lying in there somewhere, all cold and hurt."
"I know, but they—"
"I'm on my way."
"Get in there, Jimmy. I mean, God, what's wrong with you?"
She hung up.

What does Lehane manage to accomplish in this brief passage?

He gives us information. One character tells another character something she needs to know.

We learn about the characters. We see what a tough woman Annabeth is, and how little she cares for rules or laws when it comes to her family. She shows us she isn't afraid to push around her husband, a tough ex-con. And we see this tough ex-con's vulnerability when it comes to his daughter.

We get a sense of these characters' socioeconomic status through Annabeth's language. We can figure these characters aren't college professors. They're people who've had to be tough to survive their neighborhood, and they're familiar with being on the wrong side of the law. Annabeth's use of "Jesus God" and "Jesus Christ" emphasizes her Catholic upbringing.

We participate in the raw pain of parents who probably aren't going to get good news about their daughter. That's an emotional payoff for the reader.

And most importantly, there is tension. Lehane could have had the mother sink to the floor, weeping. A painful scene, but not necessarily one that grips us. Instead, he creates conflict when she attacks her husband, shaming him for letting the police keep him out of the park. This shaming goes beyond telling us about the characters and their relationship. It has repercussions that ripple through the rest of the book.

In the first draft of your novel, it's probably enough to use dialogue to convey information, whether your characters are saying, "I love you" or "The Martians are coming." Get down the basic scene.

Then, on subsequent drafts, look for ways to add tension and character development by focusing not only on what the characters say to each other but on how they say it. And why.

Whether you're writing a 2,000-word story or a 100,000-word novel, you want all of your words to pull their weight. Dialogue is a great place to start.

About the Writer: Barbara Nickless is an award-winning author whose short stories and essays have appeared in anthologies in the United States and United Kingdom. Her debut novel, Blood on the Tracks will be published by Thomas & Mercer in August 2016. When not plotting how to hide a body, Barbara is a culinary enthusiast who enjoys hiking, caving and snowshoeing in the Colorado mountains. Visit her at

Monday, April 18, 2016

Character Profiling -- Are You Missing the Spark?

By: Kathie Scrimgeour

Do your characters seem to be missing that spark? Are they feeling flat as the paper they are being written on? Maybe you need to do an in depth profile of that character. You already did one? You might consider refreshing it.

Character profiling (also referred to as character traits) will transform a fuzzy idea of a person into a full-fledged living and breathing individual. Put yourself into the mind and body of your character and ask some questions that range from the generalities – the traits - (full name, birthday, place of birth, hair color, body type and more), to in-depth – the profile - (strangest talent, dark secrets, favorite poem, do they sleep in the buff?)

Once you have answered these questions delve even further. When faced with a life or death situation, how will they react? Take care that the reaction belongs to the character and not to you. Ask yourself why the character is behaving the way they are. What life experience would result in them running away rather than drawing a sword and fighting to the death? Was it from past experience they know not to fight an ogre three times their size, or were they kidnapped and tortured by an adult who left an ogre-sized shadow in your character’s memory?

Don’t forget they are more than just consciousness on a page. For them to truly fill their lungs they need air to breathe, an environment that fills their senses. If they were to close their eyes how would the room feel to them? Do they lose their sense of balance with closed eyes? What do they smell, taste, feel on their skin? Dig deep into them. Go beyond the five senses and explore their intuition, those gut feelings. An ache deep in a person’s belly can reveal the depth of their emotions. How does their body fit into the space they stand? The further you climb into a character’s mind and body the deeper they will breathe.

Take the time to develop your top characters to the point that you can imagine them sitting down with you for a chat. Write out a list of questions to ask them as if you are getting to know someone for the first time. A few examples after you are done with the basics:

  • If you are outside, what are you most likely to do?
  • What was the last lie you told?
  • What is your favorite animal?
  • What is your most treasured thing?
  • Have you ever caught a butterfly? What was it like?
  • What are you most afraid of?

Understand every nuance, innuendo, and attribute of your main players. Give them a background, a scope, and a point of view. With extensive knowledge of your characters they will rise off the paper and fill your reader’s imagination. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Quote of the Week and the Week to Come

“I don't know if a novelist ever fully detaches him- or herself from what they wrote and the way they wrote it. I can watch 'Presumed Innocent' again and again, and I will always be bothered by the same things that will never bother anybody else.~ Scott Turow

Source: Google & Wikipedia

Scott Frederick Turow, born April 12, 1949, is an American author and lawyer. Turow has written nine fiction and two nonfiction books, which have been translated into more than 40 languages and sold more than 30 million copies.

This week on Writing from the Peak:

Mon. April 18   Character Profiling: Are You Missing the Spark by Kathie Scrimgeour

Wed. April 20  Make Your Dialogue Carry Weight by  Barbara Nickless

Fri. April 22      Sweet Success Celebrates Ronnie Lee Graham

Friday, April 15, 2016

Sweet Success Celebrates Catherine Dilts & The Chemistry of Heroes

By: Kathie Scrimgeour

Catherine Dilts is pleased to announce the publication of her short story, “The Chemistry of Heroes,” (March 28, 2016, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, available at Barnes & Noble. Subscriptions for hardcopy or electronic versions:

This is the second tale starring Charles, an African American chemist at a small manufacturing company. He is accompanied once again by his college intern sidekick Tony. The story made the cover of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, which, to short fiction authors, is comparable to a musician making the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

The Marshall Gasket Company renovation hits a snag when a body is discovered under a newly poured concrete floor. The factory is plagued with thefts of supplies used in meth labs, while animal rights activists protest an art gallery display of taxidermy. Chemistry holds the solution when Dr. Charles Jerome Harrison and his young assistant Tony Gilbert once again become entangled in a murder case.

The May issue went on sale March 28, 2016 and should be available through April. Every story promises to be a treat in the annual humor issue, which also features Colorado author R. T. Lawton, and Derringer Award winning Robert Lopresti.

To learn more about Catherine, and her novels and short stories, check out her website at

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Coping with the Advice Machine

By: Ann S. Hill 
Does your head spin sometimes with advice that smothers your enthusiasm for writing another word? You’re not alone. Here are a few nuggets of advice that have frustrated me:

1)     Limit the use of “to be” verbs. 

      Okay, but if you are writing in close third person with one POV character, the only way to get certain scenes across is to have them reported by another character. That character will necessarily use the verbs “was,” were,” and “had been” to relate that scene in which your POV character was not present.

2)     Keep things in the present. 

      Action. Action. Action. Good advice, usually. But same problem here if one is in the situation explained above.

3)     Provide conflict on every page. 

      Really? How then might the author portray a character’s personality if he or she is not an S.O.B.? A character who is kind, generous and admirable (of course he has the required faults also) will have situations that are pleasant in order to display this characteristic. 

      Think Atticus Finch in endearing scenes with Scout. Peers have suggested the creation of a storm for conflict during such scenes, but isn’t that just gratuitous conflict that feels like author manipulation? What does it have to do with the story? 

      All of my chapters contain conflict but not every scene. I’m still trying to figure out how to fulfill this requirement while keeping to my storyline and character profile. Especially in scenes with subplot resolutions. Can’t we give our characters a break and let them have a few pleasant days or portions of days? We do have them in real life.

4)     Rivet your reader with deep point of view.

     Don’t use tags which tell. Most of the time this is effective. But, anyone else find that these attempts can slow down the scene and sound just plain wordy? I probably need more practice …

Wading through books on writing technique, attending critique sessions, and searching volumes of notes on writing advice — some of it seemingly conflicting — can be daunting. But we push through, write and rewrite, and finally produce a manuscript that we believe meets the multiple requirements. Then what?

One more piece of advice: Read your chapters out loud.

Find a time when the family is gone and you are undisturbed. Have a glass of your favorite beverage nearby (nonalcoholic preferably). You’ll need it. This project can prove challenging for the vocal chords.

Amazingly, a manuscript read aloud discloses weaknesses we’ve overlooked. We find typos, misspellings, and words that are poorly chosen. When reading to ourselves, those problems escape our attention because our brain corrects them. But when we read them aloud, they jump off the page like an animated word from a preschooler’s Sesame Street episode.

Suddenly we become aware of phrases or sentences that are cumbersome or downright convoluted. So have a red pen handy. That brings up another point: read from a paper copy. This helps identify areas to polish far more effectively than reading from the computer, particularly in locating missed quotation marks, forgotten periods or undeleted additional punctuation marks after making edits.

This oral test is a must for finding errors in syntax. Sometimes a sentence flows better with minor changes, a moved adverbial phrase, for instance. If an author’s sentence patterns are all too much the same, he’ll notice this fact when reading aloud. What could be more boring than reading a work filled with subject, verb, and complements always in that order?

What about the story’s progression? Perhaps a sentence needs to be moved so that ideas or events flow naturally. Inexplicably, this mistake in order becomes astonishingly more apparent when one’s written words meet his ears.

Completing this project with an entire manuscript will require a significant investment of time, but the venture is straightforward and relatively simple to perform. This last prudent step before releasing a book into the hands of agents and editors might spare an author later regrets.

An author yearns to hear, “Your prose flows like poetry. It’s a pleasure to read.” One final oral audition may be the very assistance necessary for a writer to achieve such coveted praise.

New writers who become frustrated with seemingly unyielding rules as I was, need to take hope. While mindful of the rules and writing advice, apply them where they help you achieve goals, but set them aside when they are simply not applicable. While most advice has validity, you must not allow rules to stifle your creativity or storytelling ability.

About the writer:  After hearing the call to write in her thirties, Ann set the ambition aside while life happened. Now that she has retired from her career as a dentist and her children are adults, she is seriously attacking that parked ambition. She spends significant time on her true passion and has recently completed her first novel, Wait for Me. She has written several short stories and is currently working on a concept for her second novel. In the meantime, she remains a voracious reader and film aficionado.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Buzz Words and Repetitive Sentence Structure

Lots of phrases, buzzwords, slang, jargon, and perfectly cromulent words are thrown about critique groups on a regular basis. Newcomers to critique groups can mentally stumble when they hear something along the lines of, "The POV in your WIP head hops through white room syndrome, and all of the narrative is written in passive voice with lots of tense shifts."

POV? WIP? White rooms? Is there padding on the walls of these white rooms? I feel like I'm going insane! I know I'm tense, but how is that shifting around?

Well, have no fear. I'm here to help expand your vocabulary into the writerly world of the critique group.

This month, I'm going to cover repetitive sentence structure.

Repetitive Sentence Structure

The way you put words together to tell your story creates a rhythm to the way the reader feels the words impact them. Using different types of sentence structure is a subtle way to control your readers' reactions to the way you tell the story. It also can reveal a great deal about the point of view character.

If you stick with the same sentence structures, the reader will almost fall into a hypnotic pattern. Their reaction will be along the lines of, "This is a good story, but I'm bored." They won't be able to put their finger on it, but do we want the emotional reaction to our stories to be "bored?" Probably not. I hope not!

A talented critique partner, beta reader, or editor will be able to spot these rhythmic patterns. A really good critique partner will not rewrite your words for you. They'll simply point out the patterns you've fallen into and let you run with the fixes.

To help you identify your own patterns, look for lots of the following clustered together:

·       Opening with a prepositional phrase
·       Compound sentences
·       Short, choppy sentences
·       Long, expository sentences
·       Sentences with the same number of words/syllables

I'm not saying any one of these is a bad thing. They're actually good things! However, when clustered in a dense group, it can throw off the reader.

As a side tip that goes along with these, you can control the rate at which someone reads by varying your sentence structure.

When I describe a new environment my character is experiencing, I tend to use longer sentences. This forces the reader to slow down to process the expanded descriptions. This gives the impression that the character is studying the area as much as the reader. It naturally slows the pace of the story.

When I get into a high action scene, I intentionally drop to shorter, to-the-point sentences. These are easy to process for the reader. Therefore, the fight scene or verbal argument or dangerous situation reads fast. This fast-paced reading imposes onto the reader the sense that the action is fast as well.

These are cheats where you are "hacking your readers' brains," but they work so well.
I don't have any mathematical or proscribed ritual to changing things up. There's no set pattern of "long-long-short-long" or "short-long-long-short" to keep a steady rhythm to the reading experience.

This isn't Morse code, after all. This is an art. It has a flow, a style, a heartbeat of its own. Find your beat, change it up, and get your readers to dance to it!

If you've heard a phrase or word in a critique group and you think others should know about it (or you're not sure what to think of it), drop me a comment below, and I'll add it to my list of Buzz Words to talk about.

About the Author: J.T. Evans writes fantasy novels. He also dabbles with science fiction and horror short stories. He is the president of Pikes Peak Writers. When not writing, he secures computers at the Day Job, homebrews great beers, spends time with his family, and plays way too many card/board/role-playing games.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Quote of the week and the week to come


“If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.” ~ Beverly Cleary

Photo credit by Rollins, Michael

Beverly Cleary, born April 12, 1916 to PRESENT, is an American writer of children's and young adult fiction. One of America's most successful living authors, 91 million copies of her books have been sold worldwide since her first book was published in 1950. (Source Wikipedia)

This week on Writing from the Peak

April 11         Buzzwords (Repetitive Sentence Structure) by J.T. Evans

April 13         Coping with the Advice Machine by Ann S. Hill 

April 15         Sweet Success celebrates Catherine Dilts 

Friday, April 8, 2016

Sweet Success celebrates Marc Graham & Patchwork

By: Kathie Scrimgeour

In 2008, Marc Graham’s, Patchwork, was honored with first place in Pikes Peak Writers’ Paul Gillette Writing Contest for Historical Fiction. Eight years and several dozen rejections later, that story, now titled Of Ashes and Dust, (ISBN 9781432833930, Hardcover, 97,000 words), has been acquired by Five Star Publishing, slated for release in March of 2017.

Jim Robbins is a dead man. He’s fought Yankee and Pawnee, fought for the love of two very different women, but as the scenes of his life flash before him, his greatest struggle is about to begin. Wounded in a railroad explosion, Jim reviews those moments that shaped him. From the horrors of the Civil War, to the juggernaut of westward expansion, he played his part in the events that forged a nation—and not always for the better. Can one man truly make a difference, or is his life merely a stirring of ashes and dust?

Marc Graham is an actor, singer, bard, engineer, Freemason, and whisky aficionado (Macallan 18, one ice cube). When not on stage, in a pub, or bound to his computer, he can be found traipsing about Colorado’s Front Range with his wife and their Greater Swiss Mountain Dog.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Rules of Writing a Happy Scene
Shy Bride image courtesy of Renee at Flickr 
By: Deb McLeod

I have a sort of formula I use and teach for crafting scenes. It's general enough that what makes it onto the page isn’t predictable, but helps in prepping or revising the scene. My method is based on identifying the conflict in the scene.

Recently in a class I’m teaching about Show, Don’t Tell, I said it’s much harder to write a “happy scene” than one with conflict. Then, of course, I challenged my students to do just that – write a happy scene and focus on using show, don’t tell.

I believe readers read for conflict. For the movement of a character through a challenge as he tries to reach his goals. So what place do happy scenes have in the novel? They can be great for pacing, for a breather for the reader. They can set the stage, or up the ante for what’s to come, too.

In completing my assignment, one of my students was challenged with writing the happy scene. Her book has a character who’s weeks away from getting married to Mr. Perfect. He’s the guy she’s dreamed of, but in the story, Mr. Ex steps back into the picture. Her happy scene comes at the beginning of the character’s journey through the story. She and her fiancĂ© are perfectly happy and content as the days tick by toward the wedding. So how to write this? How to show the stasis of the character before the journey presents itself?

Before I answer that specific question for her book, let me illustrate some of the "Rules of Happy Writing" for your novels.


First and foremost, when you’re faced with a happy scene, ask yourself if it’s really necessary to the story or are you avoiding conflict on your character’s behalf? So many of my students struggle with this issue. Most are female, most were raised to be “nice.” Dragging characters you love through the mud of a real journey can be hard. So if you’re writing a happy scene, know whether it really serves the story or if it's simply the author avoiding conflict on the character's behalf.

Earning the Happy

I had a great teacher who occasionally would comment on my pages with “you haven’t earned this yet.” Usually her comment circled a passage that was intended to pluck the heartstrings of the reader. Usually the passage bordered on purple prose. It was the satisfaction that should come after a hard-earned battle for my character. But if I hadn’t put my character through the paces enough with the reader, I hadn’t earned the right to sentimentality.

You can get away with a bit of purple. You can twang the heartstrings, but you have to earn it. When you haven’t earned it yet, it’s usually because you, the author, are feeling it, but you haven’t gotten the reader to feel it. They’re not ready for the warm fuzzies. So how do you get them ready for it? Conflict.

When you’ve given the reader enough conflict or enough action, you can create a happy scene or a paragraph of purple. By then you’ve earned it. The reader will appreciate the breather. Their hearts will overflow with joy right along with your character. But you have to set it up.

But what if, as in my client’s story, the happy scene comes toward the beginning of the journey? What if that's the status quo you need to set up before your character launches into the story? There are ways you can structure this happy scene, e.g. frame it with two conflict scenes, make it flashback, and more. But I want to show you how to use happy to foreshadow unhappy.

Sickeningly Sweet

Once upon a time in college, a teacher challenged me to crawl inside a poem and write a creative nonfiction piece about it. It was an 18th century poem from the Romantic Period. I have no recollection of the title or who wrote it, but it was about a bride and her wedding. It was long and intricate, stanza after stanza of flowery language about a happy event. Gag me.

It was a poem I would normally read only on the surface and move on. But this one had survived the ages, so there must be something to it, right? The Romantic Period was the time where the individual over society began to have a presence in literature.

So when I read that poem closely, what I found was exactly like you find in “The Road Less Traveled” by Robert Frost, which everyone mistakes about being unique and different, when it’s really about crafting your perspective about the road you already took. This bride poem was about a bride in the days of arranged marriages. It showed her terror about being given to someone she didn’t know who would have absolute power over her for the rest of her life. All of it dressed up in the pomp and circumstance of a large and rich wedding.

As I studied the language, I began to look behind what was on the surface: a bride chattering about her wedding day. But she used words like “scratchy” for the lace at her neck. She was describing the dress with all its layers and petticoats as heavy. The strain of walking gracefully, curtsying gracefully under all that covering. Her disappearance inside the icon of the bride as time was creating a relentless march toward the big event. There was tension in the poem I hadn’t noticed at all until I read it more carefully. The poem was about a frightened young girl who had disappeared into the mask of the "bride."

When I read it closely, I could see that she was actually dreading what was about to happen within all the lovely excitement of preparing for her wedding. There was conflict between being the center of attention, but really being invisible as she took on the bride role. All the preparation was really a slight of hand to keep the bride from contemplating what’s happening to her; that the rest of her life as Mrs. X is unknown. So many bad things might be waiting on the horizon of an arranged wedding for political purposes. There were chinks in the picture you wouldn’t see if you simply took the poem and the character at face value.

So how does this help my student when it’s just one scene and not the whole? With a poem the whole is right there on the page, to read in one sitting while a scene is a building block.

Using Happy as a Building Block

And that’s the key right there for my student: recognizing that her happy scene is a building block to the future novel that will unfold for the reader. Take the premise of this story. A young woman is moving close to her wedding day with Mr. Perfect. When the Mr. Ex comes into the picture, he threatens to worm his way back into her heart. 

So I ask this: if the possibility for Mr. Ex to come back into her life exists at all, then we have to see those chinks in the perfection in the happy scene. Right? Because if it was perfect, Mr. Ex wouldn’t be able to get back in, would he?

So the key to writing this happy scene is in the subtle clues that will show all is not really perfect in this world. It’s not yet conscious to the bride that Mr. Perfect isn’t what she wants. She thinks she does. But have you ever had a relationship with someone with whom you did not fight? Isn’t there something missing? When the surface is perfection, isn’t there something imperfect lurking below? There should be in this story, for sure.

So how do you do that? The same way the poet did. Look at the verbs you’re using. Look at the modifiers that shape the nuance and the flavor of the scene. It’s off just a little. There’s foreshadowing in the language. Not foreshadowing a particular incident to come. You don’t want to do this heavy-handed (unless you do and then I say, go for it). But you want to add a shadow to the perfection.

A too-bright smile. A tiny misunderstanding. Maybe both reach for the last strawberry in their perfect brunch and then almost fight to be polite and let the other one have it. Who wins?

Does he insist and she picks it up and brings it to his lips in a sensual moment. He opens his mouth to bite while gazing into her eyes and a red drop drips onto the sleeve of her new ice-blue satin blouse. The spot which she notices and covers up a few times during the scene. The spot she’ll try to hide by turning the sleeve under her wrist, but that means the sleeve is now twisted and is slightly uncomfortable.

If you pick a few of these things, a perspicacious reader will get it. Most readers won’t, but that’s OK. You will be creating a tad of unrest that all is not well. It won’t be conscious to those non-perspicacious readers, but when Mr. Ex steps into the picture, and she is thrown off balance, it will seem inevitable, because those clues have been planted. When she does let Mr. Ex back in, the reader will say, I knew it wasn’t all that perfect. Of course, they knew. Because you'd planted those seeds in your happy scene.

About the Author: Deb McLeod, MFA, practices novel research immersion. For her novel, The Train to Pescara, Deb journeyed to Sardinia to study ancient goddess worship and spent time in the Abruzzi village her great-grandparents left in 1905. Her metaphysical knowledge for the Angel Thriller, The Julia Set, culminates from four years of studying and teaching meditation, clairvoyance and chakra healing. For over fifteen years, Deb McLeod has been a creative writing coach helping other writers to embrace their passion and get their words on the page. For more, see