Friday, August 15, 2014

Dialogue: Asset or Liability?

I recently reviewed a book, Inca's Death Cave by Bradford G. Wheler. I loved the plot. The author had done a lot of research on technology and how it could be used in archaeology. The setting in Peru was beautifully described, and the plot was interesting. These were pluses. However, the dialogue almost made me put the book down.

The mistakes in the dialogue were the ones everyone warns beginning writers about. Every time the main characters had a conversation they used their first names. People don't talk this way. They may use a first name in greeting someone, or in adding emphasis to a statement. They do not constantly refer to each other by name. It isn't necessary and it becomes tedious to read. It also makes the dialogue sound stilted.

The second mistake the author made was using conversation as a data dump. In the early chapters of the book, the female character gives long dissertations on the technology. The author does it in the guise of explaining technical areas to a novice, but it quickly becomes wearing. There is no give and take. If the explanations were necessary, and in this case they were, description could be used effectively at least part of the time.

Dialogue is not the easiest thing for most people to write. Even experienced authors have some character come off sounding stilted. The best advice I've heard about how to correct this problem is to listen to people. If eavesdropping on conversations seems too intrusive watch good movies, or there are places like the library of congress where native speakers have been recorded. If you listen to them enough you will get the speech patterns, and your dialog will sound natural.

One of the best ways to draw a reader into your world is a conversation. Readers get caught up in the exchange between characters if it's well done. Another plus is that dialogue sentences are typically short, at least they should be. This means lots of white space on the page. Readers like to see white space. It doesn't look so daunting.

Writing dialog may not come naturally to you, but if you work at it, it will pay dividends with your readers and reviewers.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Do ebook Readers Want Simple, Unchallenging Novels?

I recently reviewed a book, Locked In by Kevin Wilkirson, that raised this issue. The book has been a best seller in the UK, and Amazon picked it up in the US. It's a publishing phenomenon that I think deserves a passing look.

It's not a bad book, but as crime novels go it isn't a great one. So what's the appeal? My take on the book is that the plot is simple to the point of allowing the reader to move at least a few steps ahead of the police. The characters are two dimensional. The twists are predictable as is the ending. It wasn't a memorable book. So what's the attraction.

Another reviewer had an observation that made me think. Do readers want unchallenging novels. I suspect that may be the case. In this novel, the main character is a female detective who has a rather abrasive and aggressive personality, but no lusting after the boss, no steamy sex. The prose is simple, but that makes the book a quick read. Because the plot is predictable, you don't have to pay close attention to the clues, you can pick the book up at intervals and still be quickly up to speed with what's happening.

It's been suggested before that the reading public likes Dan Brown novels because, while the writing is less than stellar, the plot moves quickly, and the chapters are short. That's another way of suggesting that the novel is unchallenging. Romance writers understand that the public wants plots that are similar, with romantic settings, attractive protagonists, and not too many complications.

I love the idea that people are reading more. An observation on Digital Book World, reported that ebook sales were down during World Cup Soccer. This suggests that reading has become a relaxation pastime equivalent to watching sports, but I may be reading too much into it. However, if what the public wants is simple, unchallenging novels, that's something writers have to take to heart and decide whether they want literary fame, or best sellers.  

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What About Unlikeable Heroes?

Heroes don't have to be paragons. They can even be villains, but can they be arrogant, egotistical and thoroughly unlikable? My belief is: “No.” I recently reviewed a books with a hero most reviewers disliked. I gave it a low rating, and I wasn't alone.

The Other Story by Tatiana de Rosnay sounded like a book I'd love to read. A young writer Nicholas Duhamel has written a best seller on his first foray into publishing. If you're a writer, this book beckons. It promises a glimpse of the creative process and how fame can affect a writer's ability to create. It also has a mystery about how the book he's written connects to his own life. However, Nicholas turns out to be a thoroughly unlikable character: egotistical, self-centered and demanding. I believe the author created him this way to show that at the end of the book he realizes that he has been driving his friends and lovers away and that is responsible for why he can't write.

The problem is that you have to get to the end of the book to see this, and many reviewers gave up in disgust before they got there. You have to be very committed to a book to keep reading about a jerk.

So to answer the question: Can you get away with an unlikable hero to show character development? I would suggest that you be wary. There are always people who like a book that others can't stand, but it you want a large following, it's better to have a character that is attractive in some way so that people can feel emotionally connected to the character. This isn't new advice, but it's illuminating to see it in action.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Meet Angela Smith Author of Fatal Snag


Meet Angela:

During her senior year in high school, Angela Smith was dubbed most likely to write a novel, and that has been her dream ever since her mother read Brer Rabbit to her and her sister so often that they were able to recite it back to each other before actually learning to read. She’s always enjoyed stories about the adventure of love, and getting involved in the legal field developed her love of suspense. A certified paralegal, work gives her perfect fodder for her romantic suspense stories. When not caring for her small farm or spending time with her husband of two decades, she enjoys creating, reading, and dreaming of the places she’ll visit one day.

I asked Angela some questions about herself and her writing.

What made you decide to write romantic suspense?

I’ve always loved reading romantic suspense, and I’ve always known I had to write to shut up the voices in my head. I had already been writing romance (unpublished) when I started working at a prosecutor’s office and once there, I knew suspense was what had been missing. (Too bad it took me another ten years or so to pursue publication!) 

Did you do research for your books? If so, what kind?

Absolutely! I do all kinds of research for my books throughout the entire writing process. I read a lot of books on topic that relate to my book as well as search the internet for anything that might help in my research. I’ll ask questions and read blogs on topics. And when I can’t go where I want to write about, Google Earth is my friend! I recently contacted a police department in another state for information I needed and they were very helpful. Learning new things through my research is one of my favorite parts of writing.

Who is your favorite character and why?

A favorite character I wrote about would be like picking a favorite child. I can’t do it. I have certain characters that won’t leave me alone, but those are usually characters I haven’t completed stories on. I could pick a favorite one for a particular subject, but not overall.

How long does it take you to write a book? How much revision do you do? Any tips for other authors working on romantic suspense?

I typically plan to write one book a year, and my revision process is grueling because my first draft is like a puzzle. The three books I have now (one still in the works, but all part of my Slopeside series) took five years from start to finish, but they were finished long before I did anything with them and that’s when I was letting other things get too much in the way. Although I’d love to write and publish three to four a year, I have to be realistic with my schedule and other demands. And I always remind myself that Sandra Brown, my favorite author, only writes one a year. And she doesn’t have another job full time! So that always makes me feel better. My biggest tip for authors of any genre is to write what you enjoy reading, and don’t be afraid to write bad on the first draft. Keep writing and don’t give up, and learn everything you can. 

How did you find your publisher? What made you decide to publish this way?

A lot of research. I decided to go with a smaller press because they don’t require an agent and I love the fact my book won’t take years to get published once I sign with them. I also love that Crimson Romance is a part of Adam’s Media, a well-established publisher that has been around a long time. Going with a smaller press has a lot of huge advantages, and I’ve been very happy with them. 

What sort of writing schedule do you have?

I have a full time job, so my writing schedule revolves around my work. I usually try to get up early enough to write in the morning and I write most evenings. I usually try to write a few weekends a month, but not every weekend. I do miss weekdays, though, but have learned not to beat myself up. 

Anything you'd like to add about your books?

Fatal Snag is the second in a stand-alone series set on the ski slopes of Montana, featuring the brother of the hero in my first story, Burn on the Western Slope. Along with the romantic suspense, there’s a lot of adventure, even some history and learning tidbits (i.e. Chayton discovers his mother is Native American living on a reservation). Although I’ve always called my stories mindless entertainment that won’t change the world (to my non-romance reader friends), I always try to add some depth in the form of setting, character development, and many unusual ways, including topics that interest me. For instance, Winona, who you’ll meet in Fatal Snag and who has her own story coming out, volunteers at an animal shelter. And I’m a huge animal lover. And I’ve always been infatuated with Native American history. So I tend to add tidbits in my stories about things that interest me. 

Blurb for Fatal Snag


Hollywood fashion consultant Naomi Fisher is happy to use her obsessive-compulsive planning to assist with her cousin's wedding, but her history with the sexy and sullen Chayton Chambers, the groom’s brother, terrifies her. When the groom is kidnapped at his own wedding, Chayton and Naomi rush to find an important relic to satisfy the ransom before her cousin becomes a widow before a bride. Naomi trades garters for guns as survival, and love becomes a deadly game impossible to resist.
Information about the book:
Title: Fatal Snag
Author: Angela Smith
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Release Date: 17 March 2014

Buy Links:
Crimson Romance:

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Do Readers Finish Your Book?

"Use Grammarly for free proofreading because it can keep your readers from tossing the book across the room and editors from depositing it in the circular file."

Grammar mistakes are one reason readers become frustrated and stop reading your book somewhere before the middle. I review a lot of books and read other people's reviews. Poor grammar is so annoying to many readers that they actually start marking up the book before giving up in disgust. Running a thorough grammar check on your book can pay big dividends in reader satisfaction.

Grammar isn't the only reason readers stop reading. You have to play fair with your readers. I recently read a book in which the author set up the first three chapters as a murder mystery. I love murder mysteries, so I was ready to keep reading, but in the fourth chapter the author included about fifty pages of backstory. Too much backstory is frustrating because is slows the action, but worse it can change the character of the book. This book turned into a character study rather than a mystery.

Readers will also put your book down if you are inconsistent in your presentation. A romantic novel can have elements of fantasy, but if your sizzler slides too far into fantasy your readers may give up. They bought the book for the sizzle. Conversely, a fantasy should stay a fantasy and not become a modern romance.

I recently read an article in the New York Times, December 25, 2013, about new services like Scribd that track how readers are treating your book. This can be valuable information for authors, but you don't have to wait to subscribe to a service. Read reviews on Amazon or Goodreads, not only for your books, but for books you've read. You'll find plenty of reviewers willing to tell you exactly why the stopped reading and where.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Frugal Editing from Carolyn Howard Johnson

Quote from The Frugal Editor: “Language is a fluid lifeform. To assume that because we once learned grammar one way, it will always be accepted is fallacious. To neglect researching the language we write in when we so assiduously research the facts for what we write is folly.”
There are gremlins out there determined to keep your work from being published, your book from being promoted. Resolved to embarrass you before the gatekeepers who can turn the key of success for you—they lurk in your subconscious and the depths of your computer programs. Whether you are a new or experienced author,The Frugal Editor will help you present whistle-clean copy (from a one-page cover letter to your entire manuscript) to those who have the power to say “yea” or “nay.”

Absolutely essential for beginning writers and a necessary reminder for the more advanced.  The mentor you've been looking for.  This book won't collect dust!”~Christina Francine, review for Fjords Review

"Using the basic computer and editing tricks from The Frugal Editor, authors can prevent headaches and save themselves time—and even money—during the editing process. It’s well worth your effort to learn them." ~ Barbara McNichol, Barbara McNichol Editorial


I found The Frugal Editor helpful, so I asked Carolyn some questions that other writers might find useful.

  1. Why did you start writing the Frugal series?
After I saw how many authors were struggling with the basics (even the ethics!) of promotion on the Web, I pitched a class in book marketing to UCLA Extension's world renowned Writers' Program and when they said yes, I realized that there were no books I could recommend that covered both the basics of writing queries, media releases, media kits, etc. and helped authors with promotions, too.  Then when I pitched an editing class because I could see that editing is an important part of knowing the publishing industry, the marketing of a book and more, I ran into the same problem.  Both books are now a series of four HowToDoItFrugally books for writers with more to come.  I'm passionate about sharing the joy of writing with others, but I know it's a more joyful process when we're successful.  
  1. You said in the Frugal Editor that editing contributes to branding. What to you mean?
If an author sends something out that is unprofessional--and I don't mean just has poor grammar, but all the aspects that the publishing industry expects from authors--they risk  being seen by editors, agents, radio hosts, contest judges and more as unprofessional.  That's really not great branding from the get-go!
  1. How far should you go in editing on your own before you think about hiring an editor?
As far as you can. I say that because the more an author knows, the better prepared she is to work with an editor--whether she hires one or ends up working with one assigned by a publisher.  The more she knows, the better writer she'll be. The better writer, the more successful. Editing is a carousel that leads to success.
  1. Many sites for writers urge writers to hire an editor. What qualifications should one look for in an editor
This seems as if it should be an easy question to answer but I devote a whole chapter in The Frugal Editor ( to finding the right editor--one compatible with the author and with the title the author is working on.  The two major things I hope to get across are: 1. How to avoid scams and/or unprofessional editors  and 2. How to use references effectively. We need to ask questions we never needed to ask when hiring a plumber or a contractor.
  1. What can you expect from your editor? Finding typos? Grammar rules? Help with style?
Nancy, there are all kinds of editor. And an author has all kinds of needs. Authors learn exactly what they most need as they learn more about editing on their own.  Much has to do with how they plan to publish, how new they are to the publishing industry (notice I didn't say "to writing"), how willing they are to learn more about writing and editing on their own. Here's how I see it. A great editor who checks for everything--style, structure, writing techniques, typos, grammars--even formatting--is  a bargain. Think of it like paying top price for an editor but getting at least one extra class at the university level in everything else. I happen to know those university classes can cost upward of $500 each--on or offline. I took many of them myself and I taught many of them.
  1. Will your editor help with finding inconsistencies in the text?
An editor won't if he or she isn't qualified.  There are lots of people passing themselves off as editors. Having written a book doth not an editor make.  I give several specific resources for editors I've worked with personally in The Frugal Editor and--reallly--that's how I go about writing all my how-to books. Hearsay just doesn't cut it when you're trying to point others in the right direction.
  1. Is there anything else you'd like to add about your new book?
Well, let's see. Let me just list a few things that this book will give a writer that will make him or her seem like a professional to the gatekeepers who can say yes or no to their project:
  • Do you know how to format ellipses? It's not essential, but it's one more little thing that indicates to professionals that you know what you're doing.
  • Do you want to know how to avoid those pesky double spaces that appear throughout your copy. And do it quickly instead of trying to delete them one at a time.
  • Do you know why perfectly good grammar (things like helping verbs) may look unprofessional?
  • Do you know enough about the intricacies of writing and punctuating dialogue. Yes, that includes nonfiction writers. If you're a nonfiction writer who never uses dialogue and/or rarely uses anecdote, the information in this book will improve the salability of your work. 
You can tell I'm passionate about the topic!  Editing is about so much more than finding typos and grammar errors. Your readers will love the tips that the agents I interviewed give them. I interviewed more than 100 and some of the things that tick them off will amaze you!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s brings her experience as a publicist, journalist, marketer, and retailer to the advice she gives in her HowToDoItFrugally series of books for writers and the classes she has taught for UCLA Extension’s world-renown Writers’ Program.
The first edition of The Frugal Book Promoter was named USA Book News’ “Best Professional Book” and won the coveted Irwin Award. Now in its second edition, it’s also a USA Book News award winner and received a nod from Dan Poynter’s Global Ebook Awards. Her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success was also honored by USA Book News and won Readers’ Views Literary Award. Her marketing campaign for that book won the marketing award from New Generation Indie Book Awards.
Howard-Johnson is the recipient of the California Legislature’s Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment Award, and her community’s Character and Ethics award for her work promoting tolerance with her writing. She was also named to Pasadena Weekly’s list of 14 women of “San Gabriel Valley women who make life happen” and was given her community’s Diamond Award for Achievement in the Arts. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Branding an Organization: An Interview with Sam Smith, CEO of Medical Ministry International

What Does It Mean to “Optimize Ministry?”
An Interview with Medical Ministry International CEO, Sam Smith

An established executive in branding and marketing in the retail world, Sam Smith realized the need for compassionate, yet professional business acumen within ministry leadership and coined the term “Optimizing Ministry”.  Sam used that focus to achieve record results in fundraising and volunteer support as the CEO at Mercy Ships.  He was then approached by Medical Ministry International ( and is now able to make an even larger impact on the poor as CEO of that global organization.  MMI has staff and programs in more than 23 countries that utilize health centers, residency training, and project teams to serve the poor using Jesus as their guide. Sam is the author of the book, When Love Heals and blogs at Recently, filmmaker and media consultant Phil Cooke interviewed Sam about his insights on leadership and international ministry:

Phil Cooke: You're a nonprofit leader with a long background in business.  Has that been a help or hindrance?

Sam Smith: It's definitely been a help, and I believe it is the reason I have been called into ministry.  There are a lot of really good non-profits operating out there that have good, if not great, intentions.  Unfortunately, many of them were started by a charismatic person who through sheer will and determination were able to achieve good results, but lack the business acumen to optimize all the gifts they have been provided.  I am not a doctor, but I have the ability to provide the processes, accountability, and execution to ensure that those with medical skills can do what they have been gifted to do.  

Phil:  What can a business mindset bring to ministry?

Sam: You can have passion for what you do, but you also have to optimize every single gift that God has provided.   Many people in ministry get caught up in the passion to serve, but are willing to sacrifice accountability and process because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.  The sad part is that the opposite is actually what is needed.  If you don't have the courage to tell people they aren’t helping the ministry, but actually holding it back, you aren’t helping either one.  One of the hardest aspects of my job is to tell people that its time for them to go volunteer somewhere else.  The amazing thing is that over time, nearly every one of them will come back and thank me for telling them what others did not have the courage to do.  

Phil: Most of your ministry experience has been with medical relief. What is it about that kind of work that attracts you?

Sam: I am a branding and marketing guy and have zero medical skills.  What I do have is the experience and ability to run multi-billion dollar organizations and ensure that those with the ability to make miracles happen have a solid foundation to work.  You may be surprised to know that half of the roles at Medical Ministry International are non-medical.  We have teachers, farmers, plumbers, carpenters, engineers, and more that join forces with our medical teams to do amazing things.   I know that if our team works really hard today, somewhere around the world our team is giving someone the chance to live.  It just doesn't get better than that for me!

Phil: Medical Ministry International (MMI) has experienced significant growth in a short time under your leadership.  What new ideas and leadership techniques have you brought to the table?

Sam: Medical Ministry International started out as primarily a relief organization, but we have refocused the ministry to more of a development mindset.  This means that every one of our Health Centers, Project Teams, or Training Programs are developed for the long term benefit of the communities we serve.  We have staff on the ground working 365 days a year to provide assessment of need, execution of services, and follow-up and analysis of the work we have done.  

Another interesting aspect is that we charge the poor for our services.  Now don't get me wrong, we charge very little, but have found that if you charge something the people believe it’s worthwhile and will follow the doctor and staff directions to get well.  So many organizations give away services only to find equipment and donated items being underused or sold on the black market.  If you have an investment in your care, you own it, and no welfare mentality is created.  It works well, but if someone doesn't have any money, we take care of them anyway.

Phil: How do you connect the gospel message with medical relief work?

Sam: The main focus of our ministry is not to evangelize directly, but to serve people the way Jesus directed.  We don't care what your political or religious background is, but God always finds a way for someone on our team to be asked, "Why do you come all this way to serve us?"  

A wonderful story that sums this up is there was a group of Muslim villages in Africa that were having a difficult time surviving due to lack of access to the outside world.  We started an agricultural co-op that involved the chiefs in all 30 villages to come and work alongside us to farm their land.  We taught them how to increase their yields and over time we were able to provide enough food to feed every person in all 30 villages. They even have produce left over to serve as an income source.  The best part of the story is that we were asked why we came to help them, and we shared what motivated us to serve.  Soon we were asked to start a Bible study and now over 300 people attend twice a week to learn about the Jesus who serves as our guide.

Phil: Are you seeing an impact where MMI has been?  Can you give us an example?

Sam: I have thousands of stories, but one is related to our Dental work in Bolivia.  We are working with the Bolivian Ministry of Health to address the lack of dental care in a community just outside of Santa Cruz.  Where once we had a 3 extraction to 1 restoration ratio on dental patients we have seen a total reversal and smiles are being saved.  This is a huge deal!  The presence of sugar cane, cola, etc. in the diet causes major tooth decay and we are seeing our dental focus in Bolivia totally reversing the trend. We want to prevent disease as much as address the current illness.

Another example is in Leticia, Colombia.  We operate Clinica Leticia which is on the border of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru across the Amazon river.  This is a full scale hospital that serves 47 emergency cases a day, births over 70 children, and provides more than 70% of the total healthcare available to this region of over 300,000 people.  We also have the only CT Scan within 1,000 miles.  Talk about being an island of hope in a sea of despair!

Phil: You just produced a 30 minute TV special on the work of MMI that will be broadcast on Christian networks around the world.  Why do you feel Christian leaders should be using media in today's culture?

Sam: There is nothing worse than to be doing God's work and no one know anything about it.  If you think about it, there is plenty of negativity on television today and the world needs to be aware of the good that is happening.  They also need to be aware of the need.  I am a firm believer that God has given each of us special gifts, intelligence, and resources to use as we determine.  If we just sit in our own comfort zone and don't engage, or at least support those that do, are we not utilizing God's gifts in an optimal manner?  It is our duty to get the message out to all to hear and tv, internet, and video are powerful tools to make this happen.  It’s easy to understand why we do what we do when you see a child’s life changed before your eyes!

Phil: You've written a book about your experience so far with MMI.  Tell me about it.

Sam: When Love Heals is a book that tells the stories of the work of MMI.  It has provided an opportunity to take the reader on a journey through the eyes of our volunteers and patients.  The book is a love story of how God has engaged those with talents and gifts to dramatically change the lives of others through love.  We are very excited about the book and are already being asked to expand the concept in the future. 

Phil: What's next for Sam Smith?

Sam: We are driven at MMI to continually seek to get better every single day.  The lines continue to be filled with thousands of people seeking help and there are still many places where we don't have the resources to help them all.  We expect to triple the number of people that we currently serve in the near future, but it will take money and people to make that happen and it’s our job to work to make this a reality.

In many ways, MMI is becoming similar to the "Good Housekeeping" seal for the work of non-profits, especially in the medical world.  We are currently in negotiations with multiple medical facilities in many countries to bring our expertise, oversight, and accountability standards to their operations.  You can rest assured that if they are flying our flag, they will be operating in a very sound and accountable manner.  Feel free to follow my blog (, Facebook page ( or website to get regular updates on our progress.  This is God's work and we are honored to serve!