Making Room for the Reader by Nephele Tempest
As children, we fall in love with books that take us along for the ride, stories where we can close our eyes and easily imagine ourselves into the adventure. Book lovers never really lose that urge to join the story, to fall into the romance between the pages or head out on the dangerous quest. The writer’s job is to craft their tale in such a way as to allow the reader this mental insertion. But how does that work? What makes a novel that accessible?
Writers of otherwise polished, well-paced stories often hear back from agents or editors that they could not “connect” with the protagonist. Or that they weren’t “feeling” the voice. In some instances this is a case of personal taste, but in others it can mean that the writer has held back from really delving into their main character, especially if they are writing a limited third-person narrative. The character might be portrayed in great detail—lots of showing and not too much telling—but what’s lacking is the why behind the actions. If the reader is going to be able to walk in the character’s shoes and feel that connection, the writer must walk there first, and showing the details of that character’s journey includes conveying their thoughts and motivations and making sure they have direct correlation to their actions.
A writer who puts themselves inside their character’s head and asks why—why are they doing this, why are they saying that—will soon find their story changing. Filler actions, such as smiles and sighs and other character twitches that often serve no purpose, will get deleted. Dialogue might become more meaningful, or more sparse, or more snarky, depending on the character and the point in the story. Emotions such as fear and anxiety get ramped up. Characters might be less likely to faint or cry without true provocation. Complications could arise, making the text richer and more layered. All of these things help pull the reader into the story. The character will no longer be shuttered and closed off.
First-person narratives might seem like an easy fix to this issue, but the truth is that writers can fail to dig deeply into the character even when writing in first person. The danger with first person can be the temptation to ramble on inside the character’s head, creating overly long monologues that cover every nuance of their thoughts. As with real-life dialogue, which features far too much chit-chat to include in character dialogue, a real person’s thoughts include more tangents and fluff than is interesting in a novel. A writer must still crawl quite consciously into their character’s head and sort the important details from the detritus. Again, it’s important to ask why the character thinks these things, how they connect to their actions in the story, and to make these things shine through in the writing so that the reader feels welcome in that character’s head as well.
Knowing the character, drilling down, strengthening motivations, taking it further—all are ways of referring to this opening up of the details in order to make the story accessible for the reader. The goal is to pull that reader in on an emotional level and make them wish they were part of the action on the page. A well-written novel is an invitation to fall in love, to catch the killer, to find the treasure, to slay the monster. A completed novel might be an accomplishment, but it only truly comes to life when someone opens its pages and dives into the world the writer has created.
Agents of the Roundtable
Please share one or two of your great moments of triumph as an agent
PAMELA HARTY: For me there have been so many happy and exciting moments in my career. From seeing a client hit the New York Times bestseller list to signing a highly sought-after author to selling a project at auction—all of these are thrilling experiences. But by far the most fulfilling is when we make the call to let an author know that we have placed their first title with a publisher. It is knowing that we have played some part in helping their big dream come true.
NEPHELE TEMPEST: I’m big on milestones, so my first sale—which happened to be at auction—was a pretty major moment of triumph. In some respects it was like getting thrown into the deep end, but it was also a great learning experience and I felt really accomplished after the deal was finalized. Another was probably the first time I got up in front of a group of writers to speak at a conference without feeling like I was going to pass out. I’m an introvert and had no expectation, going into this job, that I’d find myself doing any public speaking. But it’s a fear I’ve conquered, and now talking to writers about the business and craft is one of my favorite things to do. Yet I certainly remember the jitters that came first.
LUCIENNE DIVER: Every sale is special and a triumph, but my most exciting moments as an agent probably come when I'm able to restart someone's career that has been stalled for one reason or another. Maybe there were previous sales figures to overcome or personal challenges that caused a gap in publications, but amazing writers should never be counted out and every time my faith in someone is rewarded, it feels like a huge win.
MELISSA JEGLINSKI: One of my greatest moments of triumphs as an agent was when my client called to tell me she’d received a Newbery Medal of Honor for her book I had sold. It had been the little book that could, a proposal she sent without being quite sure what it should become. But it was one of those projects that I read and just knew would be special.
Manuscript Wish List (#MSWL)
PAMELA HARTY: I would love a contemporary women's fiction project or a Highlander romance. Also, to add to my nonfiction list, I would particularly like to see a business proposal, as well as a true crime or pop culture project.
NEPHELE TEMPEST: I would really love a powerful, sexy romantic suspense project. Nothing too far into the violent end of things—no serial killers or the like. Just something with great suspense and great romantic tension and a couple whom I want to see make things work, despite all the odds against them.
MELISSA JEGLINSKI: I would love to see something with a western setting. A contemporary romance with a cowboy hero or heroine. A cozy mystery set on a dude ranch or amidst the rodeo. A middle grade where a child learns to love the ranch where he or she has gone to live.
TRAVIS PENNINGTON: I'd love to find a high-concept political thriller. A high-stakes historical romance dealing with race relations would also be great.
KRISTY HUNTER: I'd love to find a project that really highlights the unique and sometimes complicated relationship siblings share.
» Genevieve Cogman's Books 4 and 5 in the Invisible Library series, to Bella Pagan at Pan Macmillan, in a very nice deal by Lucienne Diver
» Suzanne Rock's HOT HEROES IN BLUE, in which Cuban cop brothers team up with heroines to catch Miami's most dangerous killers and discover love in the process, to Eileen Rothschild at St. Martin's by Deidre Knight
» The next four books in Jenna Kernan’s Apache Protector series, to Ann Leslie Tuttle at Harlequin Intrigues by Pamela Harty
» Polish rights to N. K. Jemisin's THE FIFTH SEASON, to SQN, by Graal in a nice deal on behalf of Lucienne Diver
»Cherie Calbom's THE JUICE LADY'S GUIDE TO FASTING, outlining the numerous and significant health benefits of fasting—including greater energy, brain power, and vitality—to Maureen Eha at Strang Communications by Pamela Harty
» Amy Jarecki's HIGHLAND DUKE series, about a duke's involvement in the Jacobite cause and his steamy union with a Scottish healer, to Caroline Acebo at Grand Central, in a three-book deal by Elaine Spencer
» Ann Marie Walker's BLACK TIE OPTIONAL, to Elizabeth Poteet at SMP Swerve, in a three-book deal by Pamela Harty
» Rachel Caine's STILLHOUSE LAKE, about the ex-wife of a serial killer trying to build new lives for herself and her children only to have bodies turning up all around her, to JoVon Sotak at Thomas & Mercer at auction by Lucienne Diver
» James Alan Gardner's untitled sci-fi/fantasy mashup, to Greg Cox at Torin a nice deal by Lucienne Diver
» Z.A. Maxfield's PAST REDEMPTION—in which a man desperately wants his job back, but in order to get it must face painful truths about his family, find his father's murderer, and learn to play well with others—to Sarah Frantz at Riptide Publishing by Deidre Knight
» Kelli Ireland's contemporary western trilogy, to Kathleen Scheibling at Harlequin Blaze, in a nice deal by Deidre Knight
» Ramez Naam's APEX was the winner of The Philip K. Dick Award, which celebrates the best science fiction paperback novel published in the United States in the previous calendar year.
» Gena Showalter's FIRSTLIFE made the New York Times bestseller list and was also nominated for Romantic Times Seal of Excellence for March.
» MIDNIGHT MARKED by Chloe Neill made the USA Today bestseller list.
» THE FIFTH SEASON by N. K. Jemisin was mentioned in a Bustle article about diverse characters in sci-fi & fantasy books.
» PLAIN DANGER by Debby Giusti rose to number five on Publishers Weekly’s bestseller list for Religious Fiction.
» Publishers Weekly gave a great review to David Coe's upcoming SHADOW'S BLADE.
» Marilyn Pappano's BAYOU HERO won the 2015 RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Harlequin Romantic Suspense, and Nalini Singh's ROCK KISS won in the Indie Contemporary Romance category.
» Teri Brown was interviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books for a piece on the end of Downton Abbey.
» Robin D. Owens was chosen as one of the three Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers (RMFW) honored guiding members for 2016.
» In a fantastic review of Amanda Sun's upcoming fantasy HEIR TO THE SKY, Romantic Times compared the creatures in the novel to those in Harry Potter.
Kerry Anne King holds a B.A. in English from York University and an M.Ed. in counseling psychology from Washington State University. She lives with her Viking in a little house surrounded by trees, the perfect place for writing books. Kerry spends her days working as an RN in a clinic, spinning her tales early in the morning and in the evenings after work. In addition to women's fiction, she also writes fantasy and mystery novels as Kerry Schafer.
TKA: Please tell us a bit about CLOSER HOME and what inspired you to write it.
Kerry: CLOSER HOME is, at its roots, the story of two women and how they deal with complicated grief. Country-pop superstar Callie Redfern dies suddenly, leaving both her massive estate and her sixteen-year-old daughter Ariel to the care of her older sister, Lise. It’s been ten years since the sisters have spoken, so Lise and Ariel are practically strangers. The only thing they have in common is a desire to find the identity of Ariel’s father, although for very different reasons. Ariel, having suddenly lost her parent, desperately wants a father. Lise wants to unload the responsibility of raising her niece. Both of them also want to escape their circumstances and avoid facing the magnitude of their grief and loss. So, armed with Callie’s high school journal and a DNA identification kit, they head out on a quest to find Ariel’s father. Given the high-profile nature of Callie’s death, the paparazzi are right behind.
The idea for the story grew out of a conversation between me and my Viking. I was telling him about a story I wrote a long time ago and buried in a drawer, in which five men take on the responsibility for a baby abandoned by her mother. All of the men are potentially the father, but nobody knows for sure which one is really The Guy. I was playing with revising this, and the Viking said, “Don’t do a baby. Make her sixteen, and looking for her father.” So the book really started with Ariel and went from there.
TKA: Have you ever known someone involuntarily pushed into the spotlight like Lise Redding?
Kerry: Not personally, no. But I’ve always been fascinated by watching what happens to people who suddenly stumble into either notoriety or money. I’ve watched the media follow people who win millions in the lottery, and the ways in which lives are changed by fame and fortune, usually not for the better. A lot of people are right back to broke within a couple of years. So that’s an idea it was fun for me to explore. In CLOSER HOME, the spotlight is not just external in the form of paparazzi attention, but internal. For years Lise has been secretly jealous of Callie’s life, feeling that maybe it should have been hers. Now she’s forced to take a long, hard look at her own life choices.
TKA: Did you face any special challenges transitioning from the fantasy and mystery novels you've written as Kerry Schafer?
Kerry: I’m a licensed mental health counselor, so I’ve spent years exploring people’s insides—the part that the rest of the world might never get to see. I’ve also experienced a lot of grief personally. So sitting down and writing about relationships and complicated emotions actually felt very natural to me. In some ways, this book seemed to write itself. The challenge has been in creating a secondary identity for myself. I feel weirdly split in two. Kerry Schafer loves the dark side: dragons and sorcery, paranormal beasties, things that go bump in the night. Kerry Anne King is all about real people experiencing real emotions in a world where there isn’t any magic. I’ve always joked about having a split personality, though, so this isn’t really anything new for me.
TKA: Have you ever written more than one book at a time, or is each story always completed before switching gears?
Kerry: I’m a great multi-tasker in my everyday life, but I don’t seem to have the brain capacity to hold the threads of two books in my head at once. I’m a pantser—I do only rudimentary plotting and let the story grow organically out of the interaction between my characters and the problem they are facing. Usually I finish one book before tackling another. In the case of CLOSER HOME, though, I was finishing up a paranormal thriller, DEAD BEFORE DYING, at the time I started writing CLOSER HOME. I ran into dueling deadlines and had to work on them both simultaneously. All I’m going to say about that is that my Viking has respectfully requested that I not do that again.
TKA: What’s the main message that you hope readers take away from CLOSER HOME?
Kerry: When I write, I think in terms of crafting a compelling story, not so much about a “message.” I do have some strong opinions about the grieving process, though, and some of these have found their way into the book. People—both professionals and friends—love to tell the bereaved how they should go about their grieving. Well-meaning folks will tell you that grief shouldn’t last longer than a year. Or that there are orderly stages you should go through. One of my editors was worried that Lise’s primary reaction to things seemed to be anger. In my personal and professional experience, there is no right or wrong way to handle grief. The important thing is to keep moving, to keep processing. Grief is work. And the form that takes is as individual as the griever and the relationship they had with the beloved—or hated—person they have lost. I would hope that maybe people who are dealing with grief might find some hope and comfort in traveling on this journey with Lise and Ariel.
TKA: Finally, what are you working on at the moment and can we expect more novels from Kerry Anne King?
Kerry: I have two books in the works right now—although I’m trying really hard to finish one before getting too deeply into the other! I’m very nearly done with the rough draft of one of my Kerry Schafer books, the second in the Shadow Valley Manor series, tentatively titled A Soul Before Dying. Next up is another Kerry Anne King women’s fiction. I have an idea I am in love with, but since I have yet to run it past either my agent or my editor, I’m going to have to keep quiet for now.
Visit Kerry's official website, follow her on Twitter, and become her friend on Facebook.
Author Tip of the Month
Cherie Calbom, also known as "The Juice Lady," is the international bestselling author of THE JUICE LADY'S SUGAR KNOCKOUT and other books on maintaining a healthy diet.
Cherie's tip: Getting organized is one of my biggest challenges as a writer. I’ve learned to make an outline and from that a separate file for each chapter that sits in my main folder. Then, as information, stories, recipes, studies, and tips pop up from day to day, I can stash them in the appropriate folder. Sometimes interesting information arrives in my inbox. I think I’ll go back later and find it, but that doesn’t always work. Sometimes it’s disappeared for good. Grab it right on the spot and paste it in the right folder. Edit later. I’ve wasted too much time looking for things in the past.
Here’s one more very important tip: back up, back up, back up. I recently had my hard drive crash. My Time Machine also failed. I lost some of my work on a new book project. I now have multiple backups. But the old memory stick is perfect for your most precious work. Every day as I close things up, I now replace my file on the memory stick. Yes, I have the Cloud and a slick backup from Mac. But that little memory stick is right there in my top drawer and easy to use. I also email the file to myself and a friend. Each day’s work is worth a lot to a writer. You don’t want to lose any of your precious work and time. Happy writing, organizing, and most of all—backing things up.
To learn more about Cherie, visit her official website.