Plot versus Character by Betty Webb

betty_authorAs most of my Lena Jones fans know, I not only write books but I teach creative writing. In my classes, I stress that in a mystery series, character is far more important than plot. That’s not to denigrate a good plot, you understand, because without good plotting that takes readers to unexpected places, we’d have a pretty boring book.


But when we think back on our favorite mystery series, what stays with us – the plot or the detective? Or to put it another way, when we go to the bookstore do we ask the clerk for the new “kidnap book” or the new “serial killer book” or do we ask for the new “Inspector Banks,” or the new “Dave Robicheaux”? And, yes, we might even ask for the new “Peter Robinson” or the new “James Lee Burke.”


Because in almost every instance, we identify the book by the lead character or the author — by human beings, not devices.


Creative writing teachers love to say, “Character is plot, plot is character,” and that’s because the character’s nature drives all the action. In the case of my Lena Jones mysteries Desert-Rage-cover(especially my new DESERT RAGE), the fact that Lena was raised in a series of foster homes and doesn’t know who her parents are makes her both tough and vulnerable at the same time. Dangerous situations that would cause the average person to head for the hills simply make Lena unholster her gun. But events that the average person would shrug off haunt Lena endlessly. Therefore, maddened with rage or sorrow, Lena initiates a course of action that impacts on everyone else in the book.


My creative writing students delight in arguing with me about this character-versus-plot concept. They bring up book after book heavy with high-octane plots and crazy-making twists. Many of them love to cite Clive Cussler’s action-heavy “Dirk Pitt” novels as examples. Then, when I ask them who the main character is, they look at me like I’m crazy and answer, “Dirk Pitt, of course.” Which proves my point.


No matter the book’s setting, whether the frigid Arctic, the middle of the Atlantic, the dunes of the Sahara, or high in the Andes, the super-curious, hyper-determined Dirk Pitt is always to be found fighting, shooting, and stabbing his way out of whatever horrible situation he’s thrust into. Think about that for a moment. If Dirk Pitt was a married, mild-mannered schoolteacher and Boy Scout leader, he wouldn’t be out there fighting pirates and terrorists, would he? Instead, Cussler paints Pitt as the almost fearless go-to guy when sunken ships or lost treasure or buried cities need to be found.


You’ll notice I said almost fearless. That’s because Cussler doesn’t write Dirk Pitt as an invulnerable superhero – he writes Pitt as a human being, encumbered by all the flaws and weaknesses humans are heir to.  And remember — human beings drive a series.


We may not always be able to remember the intricacies of plot in a particular series, but we never forget the main protagonist. Just think of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Leaphorn and Chee, Kinsey Milhone, V.I. Warshawski, Lord Peter Wimsey, Anna Pigeon, Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, Joanna Brady…


Because character is plot, and plot is character.

x x x


To read the first chapter of Betty Webb’s “Desert Rage,” go to


What Rejections Can Tell You By Chris Eboch


Getting rejections may be the hardest part of a writer’s job, but understanding what they tell you could save your career. By studying the pattern of rejections you receive, you may identify problems – the first step toward improving.

Many writers send out submissions to 5-10 agents or editors at a time. Sending small batches means you don’t waste years sending out submissions one at a time, but you also don’t wipe out your entire list of possible targets at once. Save some targets for a second, third, or fourth round of submissions, so you can fix any problems you identify from your earlier rejection letters.

Since editors and agents rarely have the time to explain why they don’t want your manuscript, many of the rejections will be form letters. If an editor or agent’s policy is to only respond if interested, then no response also counts as a form rejection.

After your first 5 to 10 rejections, see what they can tell you by reading between the lines.


Query Fail

If you send a query letter and get only form rejections, you may have a problem with your concept or the way you’re presenting it.

Maybe your idea doesn’t appeal because the market niche is too small. Make sure you’re targeting appropriate publishers, maybe those with a specific genre or regional focus. Or try to broaden your audience appeal, for example by adding a mystery or romance element to the less popular historical fiction genre.

Maybe the idea feels too familiar. If you’re following a trend like dystopian fiction or covering a common topic like the first day of school, you’ll need a really fresh take on the subject to stand out from other imitators.

If your manuscript isn’t currently marketable, you may need to make major revisions. If you can’t fix your idea, the best thing you can do is start a new project.

On the other hand, if you’ve done extensive market research and you’re confident that your idea is marketable, maybe you’re not expressing it well. Are you starting your query by clearly sharing a catchy “hook”? Are you focused on the main plot and character arc, or are you getting bogged down in unnecessary details about secondary characters and subplots? If your idea is trendy, does your query show what makes your interpretation different?

One final possibility is that you didn’t target appropriate editors or agents. If you suspect that’s the case, do more research.

Query letters are challenging, but many resources offer help. You can also ask friends who have not read the manuscript to read the query and tell you what they think the story is about. See if they get a good feel for what you’re trying to convey.


Good Idea, Poor Execution

If you have a strong idea and a well-written query letter, you may get a request for a partial manuscript. That’s a great sign that your topic is marketable. But if an agent or editor reads a few chapters and then passes, you may have a problem with your writing. That means more work on the writing craft. Is your opening too slow, with lots of back story and info dumps? Are you struggling with point of view, showing rather than telling, or pacing? Are you sure the writing is as good as you think it is?

Many books and websites offer writing craft lessons. A good critique group can also help, but less experienced writers may have trouble identifying problems, and even published writers are not always good teachers. Consider getting professional feedback, perhaps by taking classes, signing up for conference critiques, or hiring a freelance editor.

If the agent or editor you queried likes your sample chapters enough to request the whole manuscript, that suggests your “voice” is working for them. If they like your idea and writing style but don’t make an offer after seeing the entire manuscript, most likely you either have plot problems or the manuscript isn’t quite strong enough to sell well in a competitive market. At that point, you’re more likely to get specific feedback if they decide to pass on the manuscript.

Rejections are always painful, but think of them as chance to learn. You’ll lessen the sting, and maybe help yourself reach acceptance next time.



Help with Query Letters

The Writer’s Digest Guide To Query Letters, by Wendy Burt-Thomas (Writer’s Digest Books, 2009)

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Book Proposals & Query Letters by Marilyn Allen and Coleen O’Shea (ALPHA, 2011)

The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock: The Freelance Writer’s Guide to Selling More Work Faster, by Diana Burrell and Linda Formichelli (Marion Street Press, LLC, 2006)

Author and former agent Nathan Bransford has many excellent posts on query letters: has advice on writing query letters, with examples of hooks: allows you to organize and track your query letters, and also to see reports of agent responses, for comparison:

Query Shark shares hundreds of real queries critiqued by an agent:

Slush Pile Tales also critiques real queries:


Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages, with over 30 published books. Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Chris’s books for ages nine and up include The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy,The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; and The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure. Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.


Chris also writes novels of suspense and romance for adults under the name Kris Bock. Counterfeits starts a new series about stolen Rembrandt paintings that may be hidden in a small New Mexico art camp. Whispers in the Darkfeatures archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins.What We Found is a suspense with romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. Rattled follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page.

How to Save Time When You Write by Jan Christensen

Jan ChristensenFor several reasons, I’ve had an almost life-long interest in organization and time management. Thus, two published novels about a personal organizer, and work on a third. Of course, this interest bled over into my writing life. It’s a fact: you can save a lot of time by becoming better at what you do. In general, I believe this applies as much to writing as to most other things.


Think about it—you’ve probably spent a few years writing a shopping list, no? Aren’t you a bit faster than you were when you wrote your very first one? I bet so.


I’ll give you some examples for writing other, more complicated things than shopping lists, such as stories.


Learning from others:


  1. When I first joined a writer’s group after writing a full-length novel and a few short stories, they quickly pointed out three ways I could improve. One was no head-hopping in scenes—stay in point of view. Next up was learn to use active voice instead of passive voice. I began searching for “wases” like crazy. And third, search and destroy most (some say all) modifiers. If I hadn’t joined the group, who knows how long I would have gone on making those same mistakes?


  1. I have also read quite a few books about writing and the writing life. I can’t list all the things I’ve learned from them, but I know it’s stored in my brain and peeks out to help me when needed lots of times.


  1. Reading other’s people work, both fiction and nonfiction (since I write both). How does he do such great descriptions? How does she make her points so succinctly? Things like that.


Learned by myself:


Then there’s the actual writing. This is the best way to learn, of course. Almost everyone will get better as they write. I hope I’m better after having written probably around a million words than I was when I first put pencil to paper.


  1. How to write on a schedule. Seat in chair, brain on fire. Same time every day works best for me, and for lots of other writers I know.


  1. How to write to length. Tell me to write a 50-word story, and I can do it almost at once, give or take a word or two. Then I can fix it so I hit it exactly. Tell me you want between 2,000 and 5,000 words, I can hit that even better, without going under or over. Give me a novel length, again, I can hit it. This did not happen in the beginning. It took a while, and an awareness of word counts. It probably helped that I wrote a lot of short stories—for a few years I was writing one or two a month of different lengths.
  2. How to handle different aspects of writing—do better descriptions, for example. I still don’t think I’m great with descriptions, but I have learned a few tricks to make it easier for me to write them. You may have a different weakness that with time and effort will lessen.


Bottom line? You get better and faster the more you write. So, to save time later on, write a lot now. The more you write every day, the quicker you’ll improve.


Jan Christensen grew up in New Jersey and now resides in Texas. Organized to Death is her third published novel. She’s had over fifty short stories appear in various places over the last dozen years, two of which were nominated for a Derringer Award.


Jan mainly enjoys writing mysteries, but every once in awhile steps out of that comfort zone and goes for something else, including non-fiction articles. She has a column about reading in the ezine, “Mysterical-e” and blogs regularly at her website. Learn more from:




Evolving Characters In A Series Of Novels by Bill Shepard

Evolving Characters In A Series Of Novels

By Bill Shepard

            My area of writing interest, based on my career in the Foreign Service of the Department of State, was diplomacy. It occurred to me that a diplomat would be in an ideal position to solve international crimes. Working in an American Embassy, he would know visiting American citizens, for example. Should one be murdered, my protagonist would have access to information that might help solve the murder. And so, my main character would be an American diplomat, starting on his career. As the series developed, he would progress through a diplomatic career, from assignment to assignment.

And that is how Robbie Cutler emerged, early in his diplomatic career, in “Vintage Murder.” By the way his name, John Robinson “Robbie” Cutler, was a very personal choice, for Robinson is a family name on my side, while Cutler was my mother in law’s maiden name.

The best advice I received when I began novel writing, was to get to know my main character. Write down a few pages with his or her characteristics, I was told. The main personality points, I soon found, would suggest other areas where the main character was a more flawed human being, or simply, not as successful as in other areas.

Why is this important? It struck me that other characters, particularly family members, would be aware of the protagonist’s personality. They might be strong in areas where he was not, for example. And so it emerged. Robbie is very intelligent, and at home in foreign cultures. He is not, however, very people smart. And so his girl friend Sylvie Marceau supplies that characteristic, as does his sister Evalyn. Fortunately, the two women get along, to the point where Evalyn once tells Robbie off when he starts seeing women other than Sylvie!

3MURDERONTHEDANUBE           We now have a protagonist, his girl friend (who becomes his fiancée in the second book, “Murder On The Danube,” and bride in the third book, “Murder In Dordogne”), and the potential for a growing record of crimes solved. We also had a small but growing number of other diplomats, both American and foreign, who are Robbie’s Embassy colleagues, and whose path Robbie will cross in future assignments.

So far, so good. But as a career diplomat, I knew that Robbie needed access to information that would be denied to a midlevel career diplomat. In fact, I wanted him o have access, directly or indirectly, to the highest levels of American political and diplomatic intelligence. This access would supply missing areas of motivation and background that would be essential to his crime solving.

Enter Great Uncle Seth B. Cutler, a former OSS agent during the Second World War, and a nationally prominent educator, with connections from his former colleagues and his students to the highest levels of American intelligence. He has, however, a sad history, for his fiancée, an SOE operative, parachuted into Occupied France and disappeared. Solving her murder in “Murder In Dordogne” makes every character in the family more three dimensional. And in later novels, “The Saladin Affair Murders” and “The Great Game Murders,” insights provided by Uncle Seth are essential to warding off attacks by Al Qaeda as Robbie becomesgreatgamemurders a trusted staff officer for the Secretary of State.

Reader reactions to these created characters have been interesting. Many readers have written that Great Uncle Seth Cutler is their favorite character. People tend to like Robbie more because he has areas of weakness. Many empathize with his wife Sylvie, or his sister Evalyn. A new character, a diplomatic colleague and Native American assigned to the American Embassy in London named Joshua Running Deer, has now appeared, and already has fiercely loyal readers who have urged me to make sure that he reappears – as he will, in the sixth novel, to be set at the American Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus.

It is like an interesting family of characters, and as they evolve, more writing possibilities occur to me. The more I get to know them, the more interesting they become. I don’t think that attachment would be present in the same degree if this were not a series of books. Begin with “Vintage Murder,” and follow the characters. They grow on the reader, and have more facets to offer from book to book. I hope the same will be true for your books, as your readership grows.

About Bill:

Now residents of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Shepards enjoy visits from their daughters and granddaughters, fine and moderate weather, ocean swims at Assateague, Chesapeake Bay crabs, and the company of Rajah and Rani, their two rescued cats.


            Prize winning mystery writer William S. Shepard is the creator of a new genre, the diplomatic mystery, whose plots are set in American Embassies overseas. That mirrors Shepard’s own career in the Foreign Service of the United States, during which he served in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest, Athens and Bordeaux, in addition to five Washington tours of duty.


            His diplomatic mystery books explore this rich, insider background into the world of high stakes diplomacy and government. His main character is a young career diplomat, Robbie Cutler. The first four books in the series are available as Ebooks. Shepard evokes his last Foreign Service post, Consul General in Bordeaux, in Vintage Murder, the first of the series of five “diplomatic mysteries.” The second, Murder On The Danube, mines his knowledge of Hungary and the 1956 Revolution. In Murder In Dordogne Robbie Cutler and his bride Sylvie are just married, but their honeymoon in the scenic southwest of France is interrupted by murders.


            The Saladin Affair, next in the series, has Robbie Cutler transferred to work for the Secretary of State. Like the author once did, Cutler arranges trips on Air Force Two – now enlivened by serial Al Qaeda attempts to assassinate the Secretary of State, as they travel to Dublin, London, Paris, Vienna, Riga and Moscow! And who killed the American Ambassador in Dublin?


            The Great Game Murders is the most recent of the series. There is another trip by the Secretary of State, this time to Southeast Asia, India, China and Afghanistan. The duel between Al Qaeda and the United States continues, this time with Al Qaeda seeking to expand its reach with the help of a regional great power nation. And Robbie Cutler’s temporary duty (TDY) assignment to Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, carries its own perils. Fortunately, Uncle Seth helps unravel his perilous Taliban captivity in time!


Naming Your Characters by AR Kennedy

ARKennedyAt a New York Times Talk in 2009, a question from the audience for Stephen King:  “How do you name characters, particularly…” and he named a specific character.  The question was asked by a man of the same name.  The audience laughed.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember Stephen King’s answer.

Depending on the character, I have a different answer.  A novel has many characters.  Some will appear briefly.  Some will be present throughout the series.  It’s a lot of people to name.

One of my lead characters, Genevieve Lillian Brannon, has a long answer regarding her naming.  I’ve always loved the name Genevieve, the name of a great aunt I knew briefly.  It’s a beautiful name, yet I only knew her as Aunt DeDe.  Her granddaughter was named Genevieve as well, but again, no one calls her by it.  Ironically, no one calls my Genevieve, Genevieve either.  Her middle name, Lillian, came from a co-worker.  It was her first name, but she went by her middle name.  Lillian never suited her.  Lillian and Lily suit my character perfectly.

The other lead character, Nathan Michael Miccoli, has a less complicated naming process.  He was originally named Jonathan.  Another writer in my first writing class had a character named Jonathan, so I dropped the ‘Jo’ and Nathan was born.  Looking back, it was a good choice.  I can’t picture ‘Nathan’ as Jonathan at all.

Some of the more baseball oriented minds may notice a trend in my character’s names.  Rosters of my favorite team are often consulted for first and last names.  A secondary character, from book two, is named after a Mets player, who also played for the Yankees.  It is a clue regarding this character’s two sided nature.

Sometimes I use census data to find the right first or last name.  Google is a wonderful thing- ‘What is a common name for a specific age or ethnic group?’

While writing book three of ‘The Nathan Miccoli Series’, I got particularly stuck and I gave the ‘privilege’ of naming a character to three special beta readers.  They each took very different approaches.  One took a week to answer, wanting to know details about the character.  (She eventually came up with a name that I should have known she would.)  The second gave me an answer in less than thirty seconds.  (It was a great choice.)  The third told me she didn’t want the responsibility.  With some pushing, she conceded, by naming the young character David.  (Yes, after David Wright, Mets Captain.)  Her response was vetoed because a future important character is already named David and he is worthy of the All Star’s name.

To sum up, How do I name a character?

Depends on the character.


A R Kennedy lives in Long Beach, NY, with her miniature schnauzer, H.  Her debut mystery, ‘Gone…But Not Missed’, was released in November 2013.  The sequel, ‘Not Forgotten’, is expected to be released in the Spring on 2014.


gone-by-not-Forgotten-AR-Kennedy-199x300Gone…But Not Missed’ is a mystery set in Long Beach, NY.  Lillian Brannon wakes up on Valentine’s Day in an exact replica of her bedroom but the only item that she believes is authentic is her dog, Laude.  She is held captive in her kidnapper’s basement apartment, summoned upstairs once a week for a chaste dinner.  But will his kindness last, and more importantly, why isn’t anyone looking for her?   Lillian’s story is interwoven with that of Nathan, a NYPD officer, who is intrigued by Lillian’s disappearance- how can a young woman be gone for two weeks before a Missing Person Report is filed? Local police believe Lillian has voluntarily abandoned a life she didn’t like.  Lillian’s best friend convinces Nathan the authorities are wrong. With no jurisdiction, no resources, and no witnesses, he is compelled by the pictures of Lillian with her sweet smile and sparkling green eyes to obsessively take up the case.  Armed with Lillian’s keys and personal information, he spends hours, then days in her home trying to find clues that will lead him to her.


How long would you be gone before someone took action?

Starting A New Series by Sally Wright


It wasn’t that I wanted to abandon Ben Reese, but that Breeding Ground, the first Jo Grant mystery, got into my blood years ago when I spent time in Lexington, Kentucky researching the Ben Reese book, Watches Of The Night.

I’d ridden horses for years, and I loved the land around Lexington, and the glimpses I was given of life in Woodford County when I stayed in beautiful farmhouse B&Bs, and grilled the owners (who ended-up friends) about the farms, and culture, and interesting characters in Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry.

I suddenly saw a series of novels set in a whole community of horse people – grooms to aristocratic horse breeders – in which the complexities of everyday families get complicated by the added pressures of working in a family business – three, in Breeding Ground, in 1962: a hands-on broodmare farm, an equine pharmaceutical business, and a horse van manufacturer.

Breeding Ground’s a back-burner book for me that’s  simmered in my brain for years, partly because of the horses, but more because I grew-up in a small family business. My father was an orphan, raised in an orphanage, who (because a teacher helped him get a college scholarship in 1929) was able to become a chemist, who then dreamed for years about inventing a product and starting his own business – and did, with my mom when I was four.

It’s been a pivotal part of my life, and I wanted to explore the conflicts that come when whatever-family–members-are-in-charge have to choose between what they think is good for the business (all the employees and customers included) and their children’s (or siblings’) feelings. With eighty per cent of American business still family owned, I thought it was time I talked about it.

And caregivers who’ve reached their emotional limits, I wanted to work with that. And the complications of WWII, in wounds that carried-over even into the sixties (from our OSS vets, in this book, who worked with the French Resistance). I’m very close to the vet Ben Reese is based on, and I still had more to explore.

Breeding Ground means a lot to me – Jo Grant, the architect who’d cared for her mother through brain cancer; the families GraveYard2torn by business differences; the horses Jo says, “…run our lives, and get planned and pampered and brutalized by us too, for the best and the strangest and the worst of reasons.”

I also had surgery for pancreatic cancer (then did chemo and radiation) while I was working on Breeding Ground, so the process was not as linear as usual. But some of what I’ve learned through that is buried in the bones of the book, and I hope it helps someone else. I know it helped me to write it.

But can I give advice about writing a new series that applies to someone else? Probably not. We write the books we’re given. Or at least I do.

Thoughts on the role of the reviewer by Carl Brookins

carl2004First, let’s get some questions out of the way. I’m not a literary critic. I am a reviewer of crime fiction. It is not my purpose to apply in-depth analysis or to discover the innerdeeperhiddensecret meanings of the crime fiction I read. But I bring a critical eye, honed on over twenty-five years of contract and freelance reading and writing reviews for print and on-line periodicals. That experience, reading thousands of excellent, bad and indifferent novels and short stories, TV and film scripts, plus writing a few, has given me a knowledge base, a foundation if you will, and some idea of what constitutes a good novel or short story collection. And even, some biases.

That foundation is the basis I use for judging a story. That I have read and forgotten more authors and their books than the average reader gives me a limited cache to voice my opinions. But that foundation in no way means that any reader should automatically accept my views more readily than those of another reviewer. Indeed, I am of the opinion that readers will often find it more useful to follow the opinions of a reviewer with whom they most often disagree, than one who reflects their own tastes more precisely.

I believe that my role as a reviewer is to help bring to reader’s attention stories that are, or should be, of interest; stories that are well written, satisfying, entertaining and enjoyable. They must have believable multi-dimensional characters who act in believable and usually satisfying ways to further the aims of the story.

For me, pace, character, plot and setting are paramount, but not always equal in importance. There better be a really good reason for the absence of one of those. These primary elements must interact in ways that serve the story. What about good writing? Good writing can cover many weaknesses but pretty language woven into soaring sentences and paragraphs that make a reader want to smile and stop reading, to spend a moment contemplating the totality of life, but leading nowhere is ultimately frustrating. Characters with no discernable dimension are almost useless. Well-defined plots with twists and turns that lead to no resolutions are provoking and questionable.

Raising deep moral questions as character motivations with little or no context is also a way to frustrate readers, and me the critic. I see my role to be that of a taste tester, warning of bad books so you don’t waste your money, and trumpeting fresh new voices or stories. I try to identify elements of stories which I am aware are unsettling to some readers. How explicit and frequent is the sex, or the violence? Is there violence against animals? Does it appear this is a story from a solid, successful author, that seems to fall below that author’s normal level of excellence?

This all has to be done without revealing too much of the plot and certainly not the final resolution. And the huge problem is that there are so many books. Readers seem to assume that the absence of a review means the reviewer didn’t like the book, which is usually a fallacy. Most reviewers are limited, by time, by assignments, by their reading interests, by the policies of the outlets for whom they write. Most reviewers try hard to be fair and professional in their approach. We tend to believe we have responsibilities, to readers and to authors, to be as honest as we can be. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes it isn’t even fun. It is most difficult when one encounters a truly substandard work by a beloved and popular author. Books are frequently purchased on the basis of an author’s name and reputation, so when I encounter a work that is well-below an established standard, I tend to warn readers.

Finally, I believe a good reviewer should focus the review on the work, not on the author of the story. Reviews which criticize the life style of the author or call into question the veracity of the fiction or the intelligence of the author are simply bad reviews. I try very hard to avoid using my own social mores as the basis for judging the value of a novel. After all, we’re talking about murderers, thieves, criminals of every stripe here.

I believe that what I have set out here is true for the great majority of book reviewers, professional or amateur. I believe that in spite of the almost constant kerfuffle over review requirements and disappearances on some of the major sites. Reviews play a role in the success of books, but they are not the only criteria discerning readers should use. Like our political representatives, you gets what you pays for and what you pay attention to.

A final note to those authors crushed or angered by negative reviews. Fact is, bad reviews sell almost as many books as good, but trashed, lukewarm or highly praised, the worst circumstance of all is to be ignored.

Learn more about Carl and his work as well as his writing here.