Thursday, February 23, 2012

Barry Aitchison, beloved friend and fellow writer, may the muses of Heaven allow you to continue blessing us with your wisdom and inspiration. We'll miss you!

Barry Aitchison, author of Miss Alice Merriwether's Long Lost Cakes

Friday, February 17, 2012

Does your book cover have you stumped? See what artist Carole Lane James offers

My career designing book covers began with my love of graphic design. As an artist, it seemed a natural progression from paintbrush to keyboard. I worked in the field of menu design for restaurants for several years. The chefs made the entrees, and I snapped pictures and applied them dramatically on the menu with the goal to entice each guest into choosing the more expensive menu items.
Of course, the food alone couldn't make guests feel special. The art for the entire menu incorporated designs to give viewers a sense of atmosphere, from the front cover to the back page.
Book covers should do the sameentice readers to open the cover and become a part of the story. If the cover doesn't catch their eye, they don't read further. Give them a reason to open the book and turn the page.
When I began writing my first book, I had a picture in my head of my protagonist. I would sit back in my chair and stare at my words with a vision of the cover buzzing in my brain. I decided to create a book cover for my manuscript-in-progress. I couldn't get myself to wait until the writing was finished--my fingers itched to put out a correlating design. Besides, the artist in me needed the escape and to create visually for a while. As the chapters grew on the pages, the graphic image in my mind would change and grow. I fell in love with designing covers, right then and there.
The heart of the story needs to be the first thing a reader sees on the cover. That's not always an easy task with the miniature size the cover is reduced to when shown on a Kindle or other e-reader. By the time I began my second book, I was hooked on designing covers for others, too.
Every story leads me to a final design, telling me the depth, darkness or light to portray the words, beyond the first glance. My inspiration stems from the words on the page; they tell me where to begin. From there my imagination takes it to the final product. With so many authors publishing e-books today, it is essential that covers grab the readers’ attention while customers scroll through the list of books to choose from, which offers only a very small view.  
I love to watch that blank page come to life, telling a story, inviting the reader in. If someone is flipping through a snapshots of books, I want the cover to stop them long enough to take a better look at what’s inside.  I use many different styles to convey the type of book it is.
Cover art by Carole Lane James 

Happily Ever After is the novel I'm working a cover design on for talented romance author Christina Cole. The book will be released around mid March. Christina has been a joy to work with. She had an idea of what she wanted on the cover, and together we created a design that conveys the story and visually tells the heart of it.

The demands today on the pocketbooks of many struggling authors often don't include a budget for a well designed cover. I plan to meet the needs of those who can't afford a big-name designer by filling this niche with quality yet affordable graphic designs. Some traditional publishers also now require authors to pay for their covers. I can accommodate this need as well. I design each cover around the individual story; no two are alike, and the rights are retained by the author or publisher.
Every book is a work of love and endurance and deserves a good cover design. Authors work hard and put so much into their writing, the covers need to reflect their dedication. And that's what I want to do for them. Visit me at 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Guest Author Peter Bernhardt on Structuring a Novel

Structure—A Novelist’s Best Friend

You wake up in the middle of the night with this brilliant idea for your next novel and feverishly scribble it on a notepad kept on your bedside table for just the occasion when your muse strikes. When you make it to your computer during your regular writing time, you input your handwritten notes and then sit there, fingers poised over the keyboard, but not typing. What’s the matter? You still think the inspiration is great, but how do you get a novel out of it?

It’s a daunting task, isn’t it? Where do you start? Where do you want to go, and how do you carry your readers all the way to the end? Endless questions every novelist faces.

Can you say “structure” without images of constraint and limitation flooding your mind? If so, you’re on your way to writing a novel that follows a natural progression and is easy to follow. Proper structure does not stifle creativity but enhances it. You object: all this is rather abstract. All right, bear with me as I dig up examples from my two novels.

When I became serious about writing a novel a few years ago, I had to confront every writer’s fear: what could I possibly write that others would want to read? To a wannabe like me, the mantra “write about what you know” made sense (though now I subscribe to the notion, “write about what interests you”). For my first novel, The Stasi File [Stasi], I cooked up a plot featuring an American lawyer (Rolf) being sent on a spy mission to his native Germany. While I’ve never been a spy, I certainly know a lot about the other two areas. Problem solved, right? Little did I know that was the first of hundreds of baby steps that finally brought me to the overall story idea: a thriller detailing a Stasi plot to prevent German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now how could I make it interesting, distinct from other spy stories of that era? I drew upon my passion for opera and invented an aspiring opera diva (Sylvia) as a co-protagonist. I had to give her a past, both with Rolf, and with a terrorist organization. And I had to have at least one interesting subplot.

So how do you weave all these strains together in a plot complex enough to captivate readers yet not so convoluted as to confuse them? This is where the author needs to make several structural decisions. For this blog, I’ll focus on four: (1) whether to write significant backstory in a prologue or insert it in small doses throughout the main plot; (2) the number of POVs that will best tell the story; (3) the best way to write climactic chapters; (4) whether to switch tenses between story lines.  

1.       Significant Backstory: Both my novels have backstories that greatly influence the main plots. In Stasi, Sylvia’s betrayal of a terrorist boyfriend and Rolf’s abandonment of Sylvia drive the events of the main plot twelve years later. In the sequel, Teya’s Kiss, Rolf’s role in the expulsion of a fellow law school classmate comes back to haunt him nine years later. Neither novel features a prologue. While I never drafted a prologue for Stasi, I did write two drafts for Teya’s Kiss, but put them in the outtakes file. After consulting an excellent article on the subject, see I concluded that the structure would be better served by a strong first chapter, followed by incremental insertion of crucial backstory throughout the plots.

2.       Number of POVs: There are those who proclaim that a novel should be written from very few POVs, some insisting few means one. By paying such an arbitrary rule any mind, you jeopardize the structure of your novel and stifle your creativity. If you lay out your story in the best possible way, the number of POVs required will reveal themselves. You would be a fool to reduce them based on someone’s rigid pronouncement. My thriller detailing a Stasi plot to prevent German unification after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Stasi agent trying to defect with secret documents, a West German terrorist group’s involvement, and Sylvia and Rolf’s running for their lives in communist East Germany required no less than twelve POVs to tell the story in a compelling and understandable way. Teya’s Kiss is not as complex, but with the intertwining story lines that are three centuries apart still demanded six POVs. If you have done a good job outlining the structure of your story, you will know how many POVs will serve you the best, and you won’t be tempted to let someone talk you out of your well-grounded decision.  

3.       Climactic Chapters: Conflict is what drives most novels. The question is how to best write tension-filled chapters and scenes. In some novels the best way is to write a climactic chapter from the protagonist’s POV. Others are better served by switching POVs, perhaps between the protagonist and the antagonist. In Stasi, I chose a different approach: numerous and rapid POV shifts in a climactic chapter featuring an escape scene in the East Berlin Opera House. The POV switches no less than sixteen times among six different characters. I chose that structure to keep tension at the highest possible level throughout the chapter.  

4.       Tenses: As the muse whispered the story idea for Teya’s Kiss into my ear, I shuddered at the challenge of writing two plots separated by three centuries and having them converge at a crucial plot point. Moreover, how could a German white male possibly write convincingly in the voice of a thirteen-year old Pueblo Indian girl who would play a crucial role—in the author’s imagination—during the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680 that drove the Spanish from New Mexico? How to write the two stories side by side in a way that would keep the reader engaged?

Going against convention and well-meaning admonitions, I wrote the current (1990) plot line in past tense and the 1680 story in present tense. The only novel I’m aware of that has used a similar approach is Anita Shreve’s, The Pilot’s Wife, but if I may say so, it’s not nearly as daring. Her backstory in present tense involves the same two characters as the current story in past tense while in Teya’s Kiss the two story lines feature completely different characters. I believe adhering to a logical structure was a key factor in pulling this off.

In these and other instances, I found that far from hemming me in and restricting my creative juices, a well-thought-out structure freed my imagination to guide me to a unique creative endeavor. It can do the same for you.

Peter Bernhardt, Author, The Stasi File: Opera and Espionage - A Deadly Combination; Quarter Finalist 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award; Amazon/Amazon Kindle; Sequel: Teya's Kiss. - - tweet @sedonawriter

Peter also shares these thoughts at

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Color Your Way to Consistent Dialogue

The following article was previously published in Volume 11 #3, Fall issue (2000) of Once Upon a Time… a Magazine For Children’s Writers and Illustrators. Enough time has passed that the rights have reverted back to me, so I believe it’s safe to share the article with you.
Color your way to consistent dialogue. Dialogue has to sound like real people talking, or it fails. Every character must have his or her own voice, and that voice must remain consistent. Once you’ve read your manuscript aloud, and you’re sure the characters are unique and the dialogue flows naturally, take one more step.
Get some colored highlighters, a different color for each character. Go through your manuscript highlighting all of Character A’s dialogue in pink. Highlight all of character B’s dialogue in yellow. Continue through the manuscript until each character’s dialogue is a different color than that of the others.
Next, read-only the pink sections of dialogue, keeping everything in between. Read as if practicing lines in a play. Does the voice in the first pink sections sound like it’s from the same person as the voice in the last pink sections?
If not, go backward through your story. Stop when you get to a pink section that sounds the same as the first pink section. Revise all of the ladder stretches of dialogue until they blend with the voice in the earlier parts. Do the same for the other colors. This method of examining dialogue for consistency is especially helpful with novels.
Example: Character Chad might use the word “jerk” three or four times when referring to someone he isn’t crazy about. Tanya generally uses the word “nerd,” but on page 76 of the manuscript, Tanya comes up with “jerk,” and the reader accidentally assumes it’s Chad speaking.
You might have a character who always says “’Sides, …” Unless the character took a quick course in proper English, he or she isn’t going to later say “Besides” in Chapter 8.
Consider a character’s tone and vocabulary.
Example: “You know me, no ruffles or lace. But for my daughter? I was going to do her all up with more ruffles than Bo Peep.”
The same character is not likely to say “While pining for a partner who shares my deepest emotions, I stumbled upon the perfect companion, one not far from the fictional soul mate I’ve created through the privacy of my journal.”
If there are 75 pages of text between one character’s two contrasting voices, a writer may not recognize the error during a reading. However, if the two bits of dialogue are highlighted in the same color, and read back-to-back, the writer will immediately recognize the inconsistency in voice. Just as you can see the colors sneaking outside the lines in a coloring book illustration, the voice slipping outside of the character’s familiar tone will draw you right to it–if you’d done your coloring right.